Many Detroiters have vivid memories of encounters with the city’s star athletes. Susan Dise remembers Kirk Gibson.
The Channel 4 photographer was covering sports for the station in the 1980s — one of very few female journalists assigned to that beat. She’d heard Gibson was known for loudly proclaiming the presence of female reporters in the locker room by using a crass term.
“As we’re going in, I hear him say it, quite loudly,” Dise recalls. “When we’re finished with interviews, I walked up to him on my own and, quietly because I didn’t want to make a scene, asked him if he was confused and thought that was some term of endearment that he was comfortable using around his wife or mother. He started screaming about how [women reporters] shouldn’t be in there, making a big ruckus about it. I just turned around and walked away.”
The incident made the news. But it was par for the course for the pioneering women sports journalists in Detroit who entered athletes’ lockers rooms in the early days after the Ludtke court decision — the federal lawsuit, filed in 1977 by Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Ludtke against Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn — that resulted in locker-room doors being opened to women reporters.
That decision came down just in time for the 1979 baseball season. Anne Doyle, daughter of sportscaster Vince Doyle, had been hired in December 1978 as a sports reporter at the CBS affiliate in Detroit. She immediately met with Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell.
“I remember sitting in his office and, of course, he was very gracious about me covering the team, until I mentioned the locker room,” Doyle says. “At that point the whole conversation changed. He stuck a cigar in my face and told me, ‘Over my dead body you’ll go in that locker room.’ [After the Ludtke decision], I went back down to his office with my cameras, and said, ‘So, Jim, you’re still standing.’ I think he was popping Tums.”
But gaining access equal to their male peers was just the beginning. Women sports journalists had a long way to go before they could walk into a locker room without heart-pumping anxiety about what awaited them. Reporters describe sweaty jock straps thrown at their heads, athletes snapping towels at them, and giving interviews stark naked.
It was a Detroit sports team that was the last holdout to grant female reporters equal access. In 1983, the Detroit Free Press sued the Lions in U.S. District Court for barring sports photographer Mary Schroeder from entering the locker room.
“In 1983, there were 126 professional sports teams; 125 let women in the locker room,” says Schroeder, now a picture editor and photographer at The Freep.
“The Lions did not. Monte Clark was the coach. Russ Thomas was the general manager. The judge ruled either you let everyone in, including women, or else you close the locker room. So they closed the locker room to everyone. The next Sunday, the glares from all the reporters were like, ‘How dare you do this?’ ”
Clark was fired in 1984, and the next year the locker room was open to all reporters. But, like Schroeder, Dise and Doyle say some of the hostility in the early years came from male colleagues, some of whom resented the women’s presence.
But they also recall male reporters, editors, and athletes who urged them on. Doyle remembers Ernie Harwell regaling her with stories and giving her the inside scoop on players. And Pistons broadcaster George Blaha gave her her first job out of college.
“George Blaha was fantastic to me,” Doyle says. “In terms of Detroit sports people who really helped, [his] name goes right up to the top of the list.”
Today, locker rooms are less rowdy places. In fact, reporters say the system works better when players hold a press conference right after the game or shower and change after media interviews.
Dave Hogg, who has covered the Detroit Shock as a stringer for the Associated Press since their first game in 1998, says reporters enter the locker room where the players, still in uniform, are waiting at their lockers.
“We get about 20 minutes to talk to them, and they shower after that,” he says. “It works great. We get access to all the players, and we don’t have a situation where we’ve got somebody like a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron [James] who’s going to make us wait 45 minutes.”
Hogg says he sees a difference in how women reporters are treated in the locker room. “It used to be guys would just wander around the locker room naked and give interviews naked,” he says. “It was uncomfortable for [the male reporters], let alone the women. I think there’s been a huge change in male athletes getting used to women in the locker room. Most guys will come out of the shower with a towel, go to their locker, and immediately start getting dressed.”
Detroit has emerged as one of the most hospitable large sports markets in the country for women. There are remaining differences, however.
“When I first got to Detroit, I had to earn everyone’s respect in the locker room,” says WDIV-TV’s Katrina Hancock. “We as female journalists have to work 10 times harder than a man to get that respect.”
Nonetheless, she says, “Detroit’s probably one of the top 10 markets to have a ton of women in the media. You go to different cities and see one here and one there.”
Jennifer Hammond, Fox-2 sports reporter, agrees, saying Detroit has a sorority of supportive sports journalists. “We’ve all gone through a bit of the wringer to get to this point,” she says, “just being tested a bit more.”