Saturday, June 1, 2024

Review: Locker Room Talk (2024)

By Melissa Ludtke

We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest issues in the history of sports media, one that changed a great deal about how we hear about our fun and games. 

The subject concerns allowing half of the population to be allowed to do their jobs. Yes, it's the "women in the locker room" story. Those who don't remember the beginnings need to be educated as to how difficult it was for women in those transformative times.

Melissa Ludtke comes to the rescue with her book,"Locker Room Talk." And why not? She was front and center at the biggest battle of them all in this area. 

Ludtke was a reporter in 1977 for Sports Illustrated magazine, and she did some work on major league baseball stories at the time. In those days, you could only do so much reporting without setting foot in a team's locker room after a game. That catch was that baseball players needed to shower, etc., after games, and for decades they had simply gone about their business while male - always male - reporters milled about collecting information. So the locker room was part personal space and part workplace. While male reporters probably would be willing to whisper that interviewing naked athletes after games left them a little bit uncomfortable - the people covering Congress didn't have to worry about that - it more or less came with the territory.

But in the mid-1970s, more women started to enter the sports media and covered teams in the NBA and NHL. All right, that was where newspapers and magazines sent promising beginners to learn the business, and there weren't many problems. But in 1977, Ludtke was assigned to cover the World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers, and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided that Ludtke couldn't walk into the Yankees' dressing room after the game even though she had been given a pass. And thus started a loud and at times juvenile debate (at least from many of the men) about women reporters' rights and locker room.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing went to court. Ludtke and SI sued Major League Baseball, and a hearing took place for a couple of hours. A judge more or less begged the two sides to come up with some sort of compromise, such as having players wear robes when they were in areas of the locker room space that were open to reporters. But Kuhn wouldn't hear of it, relying on his call that an all-male space was "in the best interests in baseball." So the judge had little choice but to tell MLB to open the doors to everyone, using the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment along the way. .

Ludtke became embroiled in all of this, of course, and the entire affair took quite a toll. That includes some health issues and a failed marriage. Not too many of her journalistic peers rushed to her side of the story, and she received plenty of hate mail - even if she didn't see some of it until years later. It's rather striking to read some of the comments from male journalists, particularly from names such as Red Smith and Dick Young. (OK, you might expect that from Young, but not from Smith.) They had views that seemed straight of Jurassic Park. Ludtke went to Time magazine for a while, almost returned to Sports Illustrated in an episode that showed SI wasn't completely innocent here, and moved on to CBS. The details of Ludtke's life aren't detailed from there, although it looks like she had some academic honors from Harvard and Columbia. 

It's interesting how the subject of women in the locker room eventually became moot in many cases. I have covered a variety of sports in the past several years, and I've rarely gotten close to the inside of a locker room. In many sports, coaches and athletes are brought to a media room for interviews. Everyone has a chance to ask a few questions. It's even true when I'm the only reporter there. With the Sabres, the players change out of their equipment in one room that's open to the media, but then walk into an off-limits area to finish changing and take showers. 

Ludtke brings up some comments by veteran sportswriter Leonard Koppett from the time the controversy was raging. Koppett, as close to an intellectual as anyone in the business, pointed out that a system that only allows group interviews will hurt the quality of the journalists' product. That thought struck me as I was reading the book. I remember in 1997 when the Sabres won a playoff series in Game Seven, I went into the Buffalo locker room and saw Garry Galley sitting in his stall (the defenseman beat everyone into the room.) He recounted for me his pleasure in seeing his teammates come off the ice, one by one, trying to figure out a way to express his joy. It became my lead to the story, and under today's rules I might not ever had the chance to talk to Galley that night.

But I'm willing to give up a little access to guarantee equal rights for all reporters in doing their jobs. Press boxes have become a more civilized place since women started to arrive in good-sized numbers, and that's a step forward. And where would we be today without the perspective of such sports writers as Sally Jenkins, Helene Elliott, and Christine Brennan?

As for the book, the main framework of the narrative centers on the court hearing. Ludtke chose to review the proceedings at length, often quoting the principals and documents word for word along the way. It's a bid of a grind to get through it all, at least for those without bringing a law degree into their background while reading. Along the way, the author does a little jumping through time in reviewing her life. That leads to some redundancies, and maybe some editing decisions could have gone another way.

But it is great fun to read about how people reacted to the controversy along the way - and how silly they look in hindsight. It's nice to have Ludtke's memories of that time down on paper; it's always good to find out a more complete version of a significant story like this. "Locker Room Talk" will force many to shake their heads and say about the era, "What were we thinking?"

Four stars

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