The early morning, at five or six o'clock, is when sportswriter Lisa Olson can leave her apartment with the least worry. She can walk the empty streets of her Boston neighborhood and buy her newspapers and her groceries. No one will gawk or point or shout at her. No one will notice her. This is her small window of freedom.
She usually has been awake for most of the night. She has worried and thought and worried some more. The phone? Who can that be? For a while she used a system of rings for friends and co-workers, just to know if a stranger was calling, but she has changed her number often and the latest number seems to be safe. For now. Who knows when that new number will land in strange hands?
"I have your number," a voice might say again. "I know where you live. I have battery acid that I will throw on your face. I know the way you go to work."
The whole thing is crazy. What did she do to anyone? The letters. The hate. A man wrote recently that she should jump off the Mystic River bridge, just as Chuck Stuart, the alleged murderer, had done.
She does not answer the doorbell. She mostly does not go out to dinner or to the movies. She does not do anything, really, except work and go home. She is covering the Bruins now for the Boston Herald, and the Bruins are in the Stanley Cup playoffs and this should be a wonderful time. But she covers only the games that are played on the road. There has been too much trouble at the Boston Garden, where she has been spit upon and otherwise demeaned and where the two mailboxes on Causeway Street have graffiti addressed to her written on them: LISA IS A CLASSIC BITCH...LISA IS A SLUT.
She stays in her apartment during the Bruins' home games, watches them on television, thinks of the stories that she would have written about them. The games end and the news ends and the scoreboard shows end, and she is left to fret through the night. At five or six, she can buy her papers and her groceries and come back to the apartment and close her eyes. Just for a little bit.
How did all of this happen?
"She appeared one day in my office," Herald executive sports editor Bob Sales says. "She said she was taking some grad school classes at Harvard, but what she always wanted to do was become a sports-writer. She asked if I had any jobs. I did have one. It wasn't much. I needed someone to do the horse racing agate part time at night. She took it."
She was from Phoenix, 22 years old then, in 1986, and as convinced as anyone could be about what she wanted from life. She had been writing sports since she was seven, when she made up her own little newsletter that reported on neighborhood sports events. She almost learned to read with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and her brothers' Boy's Life. This would be the greatest job, writing sports.
She continued with school and worked at the Herald and sometimes did some stringing for United Press International. Her big chance to write came from doing the anonymous roundups of spoils news that the Herald ran daily. She wrote them, Sales noticed, with a nice touch.
In August 1987, when he decided to expand coverage of scholastic sports, Sales hired Olson full time. It wasn't an affirmative-action hire, bringing in another female name for public display; it was a talent hire. "She did nice stories portraying athletes as human beings," Sales says. "These were stories about high school volleyball players and swimmers, and she made you want to read them. I liked what she did a lot."
Olson wrote scholastic and collegiate sports for a year and a half. Sales thought she wrote the best scholastic stories in the city. When a Bruin beat writer became ill in the middle of the 1988-89 season, Sales turned the job over to Olson. He liked her hockey stories and began to expand her range. He told her to continue what she had been doing, to write about athletes in human terms. He sent her to a prizefight and included her on the team of reporters that covered the 1990 Super Bowl. Human stories. Last summer, Sales promoted Michael Gee, who was covering the Patriots, to columnist and that opened up a spot on the Pats' beat. The choice to fill it was Olson.
She started covering the Pats in training camp. For two months, there were no problems. On Sept. 17, she was working on a story on cornerback Maurice Hurst, who had intercepted two passes in a game the day before. Olson said later that she had asked twice to get Hurst to meet her in the media room at Foxboro Stadium. Hurst said he would do the interview after practice, in the locker room, where Olson had been only twice before. This was the beginning of her ordeal. The human stories, alas, became stories about the woman who wrote human stories.
The events of Sept. 17 are old news now, but their effects do not seem to end. Especially for Olson. The story—studied, debated, played across the pages of virtually every newspaper and magazine in the country—was that at least three Patriots players, Zeke Mowatt, Robert Perryman and Michael Timpson, gathered around her and made lewd suggestions while she interviewed Hurst. This was a locker room. The players were naked. The reporter was a woman. The story took off in that cheesy, wink-wink style that some newspapers like to print and readers like to read. Jim Bakker meets Donna Rice at Au Pair Bar in Palm Beach. Or something like that. Sports-page version.
There was a three-day stutter at the beginning, the time frame in which the Pats could have closed the gates. Olson had reported the incident to Sales, who had contacted the Patriots, but nothing happened. "The sad thing is how easily all of this could have been avoided," Sales says. "All she wanted was a chance to sit down with the players involved and explain herself, to explain that she was doing a job and she should be treated that way. That's all the Patriots would have had to do. Get the players together and meet with her."
The Boston Globe printed an account of the lockerroom incident first, on Sept. 21, and the Herald followed suit, and then two sportswriters overheard Pats owner Victor Kiam calling Olson "a classic bitch," and there was no stopping this story. The Boston chapter of the National Organization for Women urged a boycott of products by Remington Products, Kiam's company. Kiam apologized for the remark through paid newspaper ads. The issue of "a woman in the locker room," supposedly decided a decade earlier, was rehashed.
Oprah wanted Olson. Phil wanted Olson. Geraldo wanted Olson. She went on none of the shows. She did NBC's NFL Live and CBS This Morning, appearing uneasy and timid, and then stopped doing TV. She did not have to defend herself. What did she do? She was a reporter who was doing her job and had been insulted, if not actually threatened.
This did not seem to matter. Playboy called asking if she was interested in doing a "pictorial layout." Representatives for producers Aaron Spelling and Steven Bochco called asking about the chances of filming her story. She did not return the calls. Andrew Dice Clay did a routine about her. Saturday Night Live did a routine. The local disc jockeys did routines. The White House sent a telegram urging her to hang tough on the same day she received her first death threat. The sickos of the land moved to their desks and began to type with two fingers.
"I do a lot of civil-rights cases, so I've seen a lot of things that have gone through the mails, but this was the worst stuff I've ever read," says Michael Avery, one of Olson's lawyers. "The sexual references, the obscene drawings. Things that make you sick."
For a few weeks, Olson continued covering the Pats. It was ridiculous. At a Sept. 30 game against the New York Jets at Foxboro, fans chanted her name and bounced one of those inflated rubber women around the stands. She walked a gantlet of abuse as she went to the locker room for interviews. She has electric red hair and is easily recognizable. How could she hide? Following the game, Sales moved her off the beat, told her to take a vacation and get away from the noise.
The NFL was strangely quiet for the longest time, and when commissioner Paul Tagliabue finally took action on Oct. 1 by appointing Philip Heymann as special counsel to investigate the locker room incident and its aftermath, the story stayed alive as a lengthy study was conducted. The investigation culminated in the Heymann Report, a 60-page indictment of the Pats players' behavior and their team's handling of the situation, which was released on Nov. 27. The three players and Pats management were fined. Olson supposedly was vindicated. Vindicated? When she had returned to work in mid-October, she covered the Celtics and Bruins, but reporting on NBA games brought her to courtside at Boston Garden, where she still was jostled and touched and hooted at. The words were graphic. At an exhibition game in Worcester, a man poured a beer on her.
In early December, Sales moved Olson exclusively to the Bruin beat, partly because the hockey press box is located almost at the top of the Garden. On Feb. 4, Kiam, continuing in his buffoon's role, told a joke at a dinner in Stamford, Conn., saying that what Olson and the Iraqi army had in common was that they both had seen Patriot missiles up close. Kiam apologized again. Nothing changed. People spit on her head from the luxury boxes, the only seats in the Garden located above the hockey press box. She started to wear a hat for protection. Someone spray-painted CLASSIC BITCH on the front of her apartment house. Her tires were slashed. The letters continued. She changed her phone number again and again. In Hartford, a group of male fans seated in front of the press box chanted all night at her, asking her to show them her breasts.
"Isn't the thing in America supposed to be that you can be whatever you want to be?" asks Bruin public relations director Heidi Holland. "What do these people tell their daughters? That you can't do it because of idiots like me who are missing a chromosome somewhere?"
On April 25, Olson filed suit in Suffolk (County) Superior Court against the Patriots, Kiam, former general manager Pat Sullivan, former media relations director Jimmy Oldham, Mowatt, Perryman and Timpson. She asked for unspecified monetary damages for sexual harassment, civil-rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and intentional damage to her professional reputation. The Patriots have declined to comment on the situation.
The news now is that Olson is leaving Boston. She will finish covering the NHL playoffs and then she will leave the city, leave the country, go work in a foreign country for another paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Herald. She probably will not cover sports, but she will be able to walk the streets and answer the phone and sleep. She has to wonder if she ever will cover sports again.
The suit probably will not be heard for two years, maybe three. It is not one of her great worries. She never wanted to sue anybody in the first place. The continual harassment, sparked anew by Kiam's tasteless dinner joke, forced her hand. She never wanted to be especially famous or rich. She wanted only to do a job that she always wanted to hold. Is that a crime? The rage around her is a puzzle. The buzz wherever she goes is a puzzle. What did she do?
"I'm working on a story about you for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," a reporter says to her.
"Do you have to?" Lisa Olson says, politely refusing to be quoted in the magazine she read as a child.
The whole thing does not end.