'Let Them Wear Towels'

"The locker room is down these stairs," the assistant producer said, guiding me as the camera rolled for the ESPN documentary on the first female sports reporters. "I'm sorry," she continued, "but it smells like there's a dead animal in there or something."

We were using the rink for a backdrop as I recounted my adventures as a New York Times reporter in the 1970s trying to break "the locker room barrier" in male professional sports along with a handful of other young women writers across the country.

I passed through the basement door and breathed in the familiar smell. "Not a dead animal," I said. The sweat-soaked leather pads and skates always stunk up the place, and you just had to get used to it.

As depicted in the documentary Let Them Wear Towels, our detractors often said we wanted entry to that foul place for the titillation of seeing naked athletes. We were called whores and prostitutes and worse. When we asked for the same access to the players for post-game interviews as the male reporters, we were told 'no' and 'hell no.' One hockey club owner stared me down in front of the team door and said: "You are not getting into my locker room. Over my dead body." This hostile statement was not merely an affront to a woman working at her job; it meant that the articles produced by our male competitors from other news outlets would necessarily be enhanced due to the team's preferential treatment.

We had set out from college a youthfully naïve but determined bunch. A couple of us had graduated from formerly all-male schools. I was in the first class of freshman women at Princeton University and joined The New York Times at age 21; Lawrie Mifflin at The New York Daily News was in the first coed class at Yale. Others were from women's colleges known for forging female leaders. Melissa Ludtke at Sports Illustrated, who in 1976 at age 26 sued the New York Yankees for clubhouse access and won, had been a varsity athlete at Wellesley. Graduating college in the early 1970s and moving immediately into what was then an all-male workplace, we hit not a glass ceiling in the sports world but a brick wall with "No Women" written on it.

But the locker room resistance was never really about sex. Female sports journalists were a convenient and entertaining target for male discomfort with rapid societal change: the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the anti-war movement -- all the challenges to the "establishment" suddenly posed by the Woodstock Generation. It was about keeping women out in general -- out of traditionally male boardrooms and law offices and medical practices. Out of police ranks and firehouses, out of the Armed Forces, out of Congress. Out of power.

But that was then. After our repeated efforts, through persuasion and cajoling, through lawsuits and force of will, by the 1980s all professional sports locker rooms were opened to accredited reporters for postgame interviews, regardless of gender, as a matter of league policy. The battles were over. Or so it appeared.

I am 61-years-old now and retired from full-time work. I have had many careers since covering sports for The New York Times. Then one day last month, I was pulled back in. I spotted on the web a video of Don Cherry, the longtime color commentator for Hockey Night in Canada. What I heard him say prompted incredulity. He was asserting that women did not belong in the locker room.

His comment on Canadian national TV caused a flurry of debate across the Internet and on sports talk shows. Once again people were debating the right of women to be doing their jobs. I was tracked down by radio shows from Montreal to Vancouver. And what caused me the most disbelief, I explained on air, was that, of all people, Don Cherry had ignited this debate. For it was Cherry who, as coach of the Boston Bruins in the 70s, was the first in the NHL to allow me equal access to the team for postgame interviews. It was Cherry, counseled by his savvy PR man Nate Greenberg, who had taken a stand for workplace equity and made it official Bruins policy. Did he not remember?

This time though, things were different. The Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), an organization that did not exist in the 70s, lodged a formal complaint, and the NHL was quick to say that its long-established policy of equal access stood and that Cherry's views did not represent those of the league. Former AWSM President Christine Brennan, pointed out that hundreds of female sports journalists go about their work every day without incident.

But I see that women in sports journalism are still too few in number and they are still pressing to be seen and heard. When will talented and knowledgeable female reporters be freed from their posts literally on the sidelines of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL games and be elevated to the anchor booth, the remaining male sanctum of sport? Nearly half the regular audience for NFL games is now female. If sports is a bellwether of social change, a symbolic venue for national conversations on discrimination based on race, gender and, lately, sexual orientation, then we have not finished this particular conversation.

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Let Them Wear Towels premieres on July 16th at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.

Follow Robin Herman on Twitter @girlinthelocker and visit her website, www.girlinthelockerroom.com.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.