April 12, 2023 

Closing a door on history: Ruminations on WNBA locker room access

One woman in sports media's experience with locker room access

I was 22 years old when I walked gingerly into my first professional sports locker room. I was assigned to do a sidebar at a San Francisco Giants game at Candlestick Park. I remember everything about the clubhouse that day…the smell, the tight quarters, my discomfort, heck, I remember the outfit I wore that day.

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I talked to Will Clark and Robby Thompson for my 12-inch story. They were friendly and accommodating as I introduced myself, asked my questions and then high-tailed it out of there, sticking around not a minute longer than I had to.

I was 23 years old the first time someone told me I couldn’t go into a locker room. I was covering the East-West Shrine Game – an annual college football all-star game – at Stanford Stadium, and when the game was over, the male reporters went into the locker room and a man stood in front of me and another female reporter and said, “You can’t go in there.”

It took twenty minutes and several conversations with the game organizers before they let us in, and by that time the place had largely cleared out.


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I wrote my first-ever column in 1990 about Lisa Olson, the Boston Globe reporter who was targeted for sexual harassment by five players in the New England Patriots locker room, mocked by the team owner, vilified by the fans and ended up having to move to Australia to reset her career. I am proud to call Lisa a friend. I’m still horrified by what happened to her.

I am also friends with Susan Fornoff, the groundbreaking Oakland A’s beat writer who received a dead rat as a gift from Dave Kingman because she had the temerity to be in his clubhouse, and with Joan Ryan, who was a young reporter covering the USFL in Florida when a player ran a razor blade up the back of her leg while she did an interview. I remember my young, righteous anger when Cincinatti Bengals coach Sam Wyche barred USA Today reporter Denise Tom from the locker room following a Monday night football game, saying it wasn’t fair to their wives and girlfriends.

The locker room and my right to have a presence in it – and believe me, I’ve experienced my share of having my mettle tested in that space – was a narrative that played out over and over and over. It defined how I thought about my career choice and my feminism at a critical point in my life.

So when the WNBA announced a change in the media policies on Monday, that locker rooms would be closed, and that players would be made available outside by request in addition to postgame press conferences, I had a visceral, emotional reaction. That a women’s league would deny access to a place that had been for so long a way to segregate women reporters, to single them out, to hold them back, feels incongruous.

It also feels inevitable.

There isn’t a thing about the women’s game that isn’t changing at head-spinning speed. The transfer portal and NIL, the athletes’ ability to claim their own narratives on social media and in podcasts and documentaries, the thrilling interest in the game and the blossoming number of people that cover it, some, frankly, with more professionalism than others.

And make no mistake, players have every right to expect that they be treated respectfully in that space. They clearly don’t feel that way, or else we might not be here.

But closing the door to the locker room closes the door on things that can’t be replaced by a hallway interview. It closes the door on relationship-building, the ability to capture the color of pregame preparations or a postgame celebration. The ability to experience their collective joy or disappointment or frustration. The ability to experience their experience and then share it.


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Pulling players out upon request may work just fine. Having increased access to practices and shoot-arounds may compensate some for what’s being lost. I hope it’s done well and I hope it’s done right because the WNBA owes it to itself to make the players available to the people who want to tell their stories. It’s simply and inarguably what’s best for the league.

What I want for the WNBA players is what I’ve always wanted, for them to be respected and treated as the professionals they are. But in this case, even if it does nothing to change their minds (and I have no illusions about that), I want them to understand the history of what they are choosing, of women, who like them, were held back by access to the opportunities that their male counterparts were getting. That there are women who endured painful court battles and shameful and humiliating experiences and went back through that doorway anyway. Because they weren’t going to be told they couldn’t go in.

I want them to know that they are closing the door to more than a room, they are erecting a barrier that many people – brave, bad-ass women – worked hard to take down.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

3 Comments

  1. MICHAEL E SHOLLER on April 12, 2023 at 7:28 pm

    Everyone associated with the WNBA should read and COMPREHEND this.

  2. Bob Lamm on April 23, 2023 at 10:28 pm

    Great piece.

  3. Teresa Tidwell on April 28, 2023 at 8:23 am

    Wow! Thank you!

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