I didn’t realize how lucky I was.
That was my first reaction after watching Let Them Wear Towels, which airs at 8 tonight as part of ESPN’s Nine for IX series.
I wasn’t in the first wave of women who broke down the door when I became a sports writer for the Lexington Herald on Dec. 26, 1976, because I was largely limited to women’s sports. When I became the first woman to cover the Browns in 1981, the Dayton Daily News didn’t have to sue to get me in the locker room, apparently because owner Art Modell decided not to make it an issue.
But it was a national issue, as ESPN’s documentary so vividly illustrates. Women were the subject of headlines and editorial cartoons. One was prohibited from eating with the male sports writers at Fenway Park. There were snide remarks, funny looks and harassment.
I received plenty of those funny looks. But I wasn’t aware of the headlines until they became about me. The Plain Dealer wrote a story during my first year on the Browns’ beat, accompanied by a photo of me in a coat buttoned up to my chin and defensive back Clarence Scott wearing nothing but a towel.
Scott and I talked about that two months ago at the Akron Browns Backers banquet and he confessed he hadn’t been in favor of my access. But he’d never let on during our interviews. He was as much of a gentleman then as he is now.
The late Chuck Heaton of the PD wrote that the Browns should buy robes for the players, an idea I wasn’t crazy about at the time and one that didn’t come to fruition. The strongest feedback I received came when players and their wives voiced their opposition, some on religious grounds, in a story in Browns News Illustrated.
I went into the San Francisco 49ers locker room after the 1981 Super Bowl unaware that the Sacramento Bee had filed suit against the 49ers to get Michele Himmelberg in earlier that season. I knelt at the feet of Joe Montana after he won his first Most Valuable Player award, interviewed several defensive players about a crucial goal-line stand and never felt I wasn’t wanted. Perhaps I was too naïve. Perhaps I was too grateful because the losing Cincinnati Bengals still wouldn’t let me in.
I still marvel that during my four years at the Herald, where a higher-up once uttered the words “Women can’t cover men’s sports,” we had three women on the staff at one time along with Christine Brennan, a floating intern from Northwestern. Three of us made sports writing our life’s work. In Let Them Wear Towels, Jane Gross, formerly of the New York Times, said, “Virtually all of us went on to do something else.” Until the future of the newspaper industry came into question, that thought never crossed my mind.
What also struck me about ESPN’s documentary was the incredible shortsightedness of some in power, especially baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He denied women access because he didn’t feel it was fair for players, for the rest of the press or for baseball fans “who have great reservations about this.”
Baseball seemed to drag its feet the longest. The Cincinnati Reds once sent me a pass with locker room crossed out. Dave Parker uttered disparaging words as I walked through the clubhouse. During my time covering Indians spring training for the Columbus Dispatch during the Mike Hargrove era, one of Hargrove’s coaches loudly questioned what I was doing there, even though I rarely went in after games unless something newsworthy happened.
Worried that players would follow his lead, I complained to public relations director John Maroon and never heard another word.
Yes, I stood in the hallway hoping players would come out like former New York Times writer Claire Smith talked about in Let Them Wear Towels. But I don’t have drawers full of hate mail as some of these women do, although I am waiting for my yearly “go back to the kitchen” email and wondering if the sender has passed away.
As my years pile up, I learn more about the opposition. Sue Kidd, wife of former Eastern Kentucky football coach Roy Kidd, recently told me she convinced her husband to let me (then sports editor of the school paper) into the locker room after the Colonels won the Ohio Valley Conference title. I had no idea he had been against it.
But I never had water poured on me like Dave Kingman did to Gross. I never experienced the kind of sexual harassment and death threats that drove Lisa Olson out of the country. When I started, I took compliments about my appearance as compliments, even if they were prompted by ulterior motives. I never was physically picked up and removed from a locker room like Lesley Visser was at the 1980 Cotton Bowl, although a security guard in the Browns locker room in Cincinnati came close to trying. A Browns equipment man said, “She’s with us.”
I appreciate those three words even more now than I did then. I wouldn’t be considered a pioneer without the help of that equipment man, along with many others.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.