ESPN’s ‘Let Them Wear Towels’ debuts tonight at 8 p.m. EST as part of the network’s Nine for IX documentary series. I encourage you all to watch it and see how far we’ve come as a society that now gives women equal footing when it comes to coverage of professional sports.
And for personal reasons, I hope you’ll watch to learn more about the women that I am forever indebted to. They courageously went against the grain, and without them, I, like so many other women who now cover sports, may never have found my life’s calling.
The NFL adopted an equal access policy in 1985. That was the year I was born. Back then, Commissioner Pete Rozelle warned teams they’d be subjected to fines if they didn’t allow open locker rooms. He was met with heavy resistance.
Reporters were subject to varying degrees of harassment from players and coaches who all-too-proudly flaunted their bodies or simply wanted to unnerve these ‘outsiders’ who didn’t belong.
Lisa Olson was one of them. Then 26, Olson, had a jock strap flung at her head while covering the Patriots.
Tight end Zeke Mowatt stood in front of her, chiding, “Is this what you want? Do you want to take a bite out of this?” Two to three other naked players crowded around her, making lewd gestures.
After news broke of the incident, Olson received hundreds of obscene phone calls and threatening letters from fans. She sued the Patriots for sexual harassment.
Rather than conduct an internal investigation, then-Patriots owner Victor Kiam said he couldn’t “disagree with the players’ actions.’”
He called Olson ‘a classic bitch’ publicly. He even accused her of following a Colts player into a shower.
She was spit on by fans at games. Her tires were slashed, with a note that read, ‘Next time it will be your neck.’
Her apartment was burglarized, with another note — ‘Leave Boston or die.’
She eventually did, fleeing to Australia for six years.
Joan Ryan, then a rookie reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, has a similar horror story.
She was covering the now-defunct USFL when she claims that one player, who was cutting tape off of his ankle, slid a long-handled razor blade up and down her leg.
The women covering professional baseball at the time weren’t faring much better.
Susan Fornoff, who was covering the Oakland A’s for the Sacramento Bee, received a box delivered from an usher during an A’s-Royals game. She opened it, horrified to discover a live rat with a note that said, ‘Hi, my name is Sue.’
Fornoff later learned that the box had been sent by an A’s player. She left sports reporting in 1992, six years after the incident occurred.
Melissa Ludkte’s story isn’t much different. She was barred from entering the locker room during the 1977 World Series. Nor is Paola Boivin’s when she covered the St. Louis Cardinals. Or Lesley Visser, who was banned from entering the locker room after the 1980 Cotton Bowl.
You’ll hear from some of those brave women in ‘Let Them Wear Towels.’ And hopefully you’ll gain a newfound level of respect for what they endured so that a new generation — my generation — wouldn’t have to feel afraid.