When the story about the Sept. 17 sexual harassment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by members of the New England Patriots finally surrendered its spot on front pages and in newscasts last week, it was replaced by the report of a woman sportswriter who was barred from the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room. Both stories stirred the dormant debate about a woman's right to equal access in the locker room. The Cincinnati story also left one man—Bengal coach Sam Wyche—out on a limb.
By last Saturday night, five nights after he refused USA Today reporter Denise Tom access to the Bengal locker room after a 31-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at the Kingdome, Wyche was smarting from his week-long crusade on behalf of all-male locker rooms. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had fined him one week's pay (estimated to be $23,529) for violating the league's equal-access policy. The Bengal players and coaches had been distracted by a full-scale media assault on Wyche, and they had lost valuable preparation time for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams. And though he had received phone calls and messages of support from fans in 40 states, Wyche was weary from serving as point man for a one-man army in an unwinnable war.
Wyche was in his room on the 19th floor of the Anaheim Marriott last Saturday night, with the American League playoff on TV, as he reviewed his game plan for the next day's test against the Rams. He said he hadn't slept all week. He sounded like it. He looked like it. "It's getting damn lonely out here," he said.
Wyche, who had set the media blitz and commissioner's reprimand into motion, was more defiant than beaten by week's end. "I've been fined an incredible amount for trying to do something right, damn it," he said. "Hell no, I don't regret it. I'll never regret it. No amount of a fine can make a man change his conviction. And I resent like crazy the fact that I'm being made out to be a rebel against the commissioner. I'm trying to help the situation, not hurt it. Do I feel I broke a rule and confronted the commissioner? Absolutely not. We didn't violate the spirit of the law. We married the right of equal access for all reporters to the right of human decency."
On Sunday, Wyche didn't feel so tired. The Bengals, behind Boomer Esiason's club-record 471 passing yards, bolted to a 21-0 lead, hung on for a 31-31 tie after four quarters and beat the Rams on Jim Breech's 44-yard field goal with 3:04 left in overtime. After the game, the Bengals allowed about 125 reporters into their Anaheim Stadium locker room—a dozen or so were women—but the players undressed and showered behind a yellow curtain that separated the showers from the dressing area. The curtain was put in place at the Bengals' request and with Tagliabue's approval. "It worked," Wyche said after the game. "This is a giant leap for mankind."
Well, it's a step. It all started, of course, when some Patriots—tight end Zeke Mowatt, in particular—harassed Olson in the Patriot locker room at Foxboro Stadium on Sept. 17. Tagliabue sent a memo to all 28 NFL teams, instructing them to enforce the league's equal-access rule, which says locker rooms are to be opened to all accredited media within seven minutes after games. In a team meeting on Sept. 26, Wyche read Tagliabue's statement, and then he took it upon himself to introduce a new club policy that would allow only male reporters into the Bengal locker room after a game, with the understanding that players would first talk to women reporters outside the locker room. The players, some of whom had complained recently about women in the locker room, did not press their coach for such a change in policy. They expressed lukewarm support for Wyche's proposal, with several players raising their hands amid mumblings of approval. So Wyche plowed ahead.
"League rules aren't made by intra-team voting," says NFL vice-president of communications Joe Browne. Wyche never told his bosses, Bengal vice-president Paul Brown and assistant general manager Mike Brown, of his plan to deny women reporters access to the Bengal locker room. He never told Tagliabue. At a time when a sensitive issue was most volatile, Wyche acted on his own against league policy. That was the main reason, league sources say, that Wyche received the biggest fine an NFL commissioner has ever handed a coach.
So in Seattle, when Tom showed up at the Bengal locker room after the game, Wyche told her she could talk to any player she wished—outside the locker room. She requested Esiason. While a group of male reporters waited to speak with Esiason, Wyche delivered him to Tom in the hallway. "I'm sorry for this," Esiason said to Tom, and answered her questions.
Shortly afterward, in the course of explaining his actions to the assembled media, Wyche accused Tom of being a plant and implied she was not a legitimate member of the press. "I'd like to know how many stories she's written for USA Today," he said. It so happens that in her six years with the paper, Tom's byline has appeared on more than 500 stories. This was the third time that Wyche had violated the NFL media policy, and all the incidents have occurred after the Bengals suffered tough losses. In 1986 he knocked a microphone out of a reporter's hand when he was questioned after a 34-28 defeat in Denver, and last year he refused to allow reporters into the Bengal locker room after a 24-17 loss to the Seahawks in Cincinnati.
After the Tom incident, the media horde that had taken up the Olson story in Boston now went after the Bengals, who had remained in Seattle last week to practice for Sunday's game in Anaheim. "Our hotel lobby looked like a TV studio," Mike Brown said. Wyche granted requests to appear on Donahue, Prime Time Live and Good Morning America, in addition to network weekend NFL shows.
On Oct. 3, the day after the Mets lost their general manager, the Knicks opened training camp and the Red Sox played for the AL East title, the lead story in The New York Times sports section was about the Wyche-Tom incident, and Times columnist George Vecsey called for Wyche to be suspended.
Last Thursday the league informed Mike Brown that Wyche was being summoned to New York for a Friday morning meeting with Tagliabue. Wyche then went into a team meeting and told his players that assistant coach Bill Johnson would serve as head coach in his absence. At the same time, Paul Brown was phoning Tagliabue to tell him that taking a head coach away from his team so close to game day would be devastating. Tagliabue relented. Wyche could have his hearing with the commissioner that night by phone. Bengal p.r. man Al Heim then stuck his head into the Bengal meeting room and said, "Sam, you don't have to go to New York."
The next day Tagliabue informed Wyche of the fine and told him to adhere to the league's written policy on equal access or face a tougher penalty the next time he broke the rule. Tagliabue's point was clear: If there's going to be a judge and jury on the issue of women in NFL locker rooms, it won't be Sam Wyche.
"Sam has been in the league as a player, assistant coach and head coach, and he knows if club personnel have disagreements with league rules or the way they're implemented, there's a proper and nonpublic procedure in which to lodge that complaint," the NFL's Joe Browne said. "He has never lodged a complaint on this issue—we've never heard a word from him on women in the locker room—and subsequent to his action he chose to appear on Good Morning America to explain what he did instead of explaining it to the commissioner."
The Bengals went on preparing for the Rams. "But we're so screwed up," Esiason said last Thursday night, "that it'll be like a preseason game for us." Even Wyche admitted, "The competitive balance of this game has been ruined."
Wyche received little support for his locker room crusade from friends or enemies in the NFL. Longtime bitter adversary Jerry Glanville, the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, said, "The people who say, 'Well, I wouldn't want my daughter in [the locker room],' well, your daughter's probably not covering sports. This is 1990. Let's not back up."
But Wyche had the backing of some fans in Anaheim. "You know what happened to me today, walking through the lobby here?" Wyche said last Saturday night. "I had about 20 people come up to me and give me money. They're saying to me, 'Don't give up, Sam!' and 'You're doing the right thing, Sam!' and reaching into their wallets and pulling out dollar bills and five-dollar bills and stuffing them in my hand. They want to help me pay the fine. Incredible."
While the Wyche chapter in this locker room saga appears to be over, the Olson incident is far from being settled. As of Sunday night, special counsel Philip Heymann, appointed by Tagliabue to get to the bottom of the matter, was continuing his investigation. Tagliabue said that Heymann "is trying to get it done within a month from now, hopefully a little quicker." Mowatt was proclaiming his innocence, based on the results of a 5½-hour lie detector test he said he took last week in Miami. And Olson, who reportedly had received death threats, went on a one-week vacation to recuperate from the stress brought on by the national media coverage.
Sam Wyche knows the feeling.
THE PLAYERS SPEAK
Last week SI asked 143 NFL players: Are you in favor of or opposed to woman reporters' entering NFL locker rooms? Here are the results of that random survey, with a sampling of players' comments on equal access.
Washington Redskins punter Ralf Mojsiejenko: "Woman reporters have to have the opportunity to have careers. It doesn't bother me the least bit. It's part of the game."
Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Danny Noonan: "It's never been an issue. I don't know why all of a sudden now it's coming out. I thought that stuff was resolved in the '70s."
New Orleans Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson: "I just treat them like they're one of the guys."
Cleveland Browns center Mike Baab: "I don't care. I treat every reporter the same, like crap."
Miami Dolphin guard Roy Foster: "It's an invasion of privacy. It's indecent. You might as well interview me while I'm sitting on the pot."
Atlanta Falcon quarterback Scott Campbell: "When women start playing in the NFL, then they should let them in the locker room."
Phoenix Cardinals running back Ron Wolfley: "The locker room is a sweaty place. You want to belch. Maybe you want to scratch. It doesn't seem like a good place for women to be."