“Let Them Wear Towels” exposes bad behavior, terrible treatment and progress.
It was 2004. The Astros were in Atlanta. And they were celebrating.
That last part alone was remarkable. For years, there were very few reasons for the Astros to be celebrating in Atlanta. Whether it was the regular season, or, more significantly, the postseason, the only thing that happened to the Astros in Atlanta of any import was their ability to quietly pack up their belongings and get the heck out of town as quickly as possible.
The Astros never won in Atlanta. Even in their best seasons, they’d go there and get thumped, two, sometimes, three games. And the playoffs? Bah. Pick a year: 1997, 1999, 2001. Different seasons, same results. The Astros were, simply, the Braves’ personal punching bag.
That is, until 2004. The scene in the clubhouse was chaotic. The Astros finally did it — they beat the Braves in the Division Series, and they spent the next hour or so destroying the carpet in the visiting clubhouse with several dozen cases of bubbly. This was a big one. This wasn’t merely the first time the Astros won a postseason series against the Braves. This was the first time they won a postseason series, ever. Seven tries over 40 years and not a single time did they advance beyond the first round. Until now.
Amid the hugs and laughing and champagne chugging, there were so many other things going on in that clubhouse at Turner Field. Older players spoke sadly and solemnly about their friend, Ken Caminiti, who had died just days earlier. Longtime Brave John Smoltz, part of all of those prior teams that beat the Astros, snuck into a backroom adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse to personally congratulate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and wish them luck in the next round. General manager Gerry Hunsicker, normally buttoned up, stoic and very GM-like, laughed joyously, champagne-soaked hair wildly shooting off in every direction, recalling his thoughts even with the Astros up by seven or eight runs late in the game: “Oh boy. Here comes (Mike) Gallo. This thing isn’t over yet.”
If this was the scene in, say, 1984 and not 2004, the situation would have been different. Oh, sure, the carpet would have still been destroyed. And players would still be loud and laughing. And the GM would still look like a crazy mad scientist. And classy players from the losing team would still be gracious in defeat.
It would have been different, however, in that the only reporters documenting all of this would have been men. Me? I would have been standing outside of the clubhouse, alone, missing everything, and hoping someone would be nice enough to come outside and tell me about it.
I thought about this, and the dozens of other poignant moments that I would have missed during my years covering the Astros for MLB.com, as I watched the documentary “Let Them Wear Towels” on ESPN Classic. This hour-long special, chronicling the treatment women sports reporters received decades ago, both enraged and enlightened me. Previously, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how things were handled back then. After watching this show, I realize I had absolutely no idea how bad it really was.
It’s impossible to truly comprehend how horribly women were treated back then, mainly because it seems so preposterous in modern times. If you walk into a Major League clubhouse today, you may not find the same number of women reporters as men, but the ratio is closer than ever. And there are probably athletes who still don’t like women in locker rooms, but for the most part, it’s a teeny tiny minority. It’s not unnatural or weird or a spectacle for a woman to be in a locker room. It’s simply a normal workday.
This would be in stark contrast to women being harassed, screamed at and physically thrown out of clubhouses, which apparently was standard practice in the 1970s and ’80s. As I watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” I found myself gasping with disbelief, just stunned, with what women had to deal with back then. It just infuriated me. One account actually moved me to tears.
I tried to imagine what it would be like today, to go through what our predecessors endured. And I can’t. It just makes no sense. Standing alone in a hallway, barricaded from a place I had every right to be? Shunned by not only the athletes, but also the public relations directors and fellow reporters, most of who refused to help? Having absolutely no control over anything, including the crappy copy I was about to file to my editor because I had no quotes? And not losing my mind — or worse, my temper — throughout?
I’d like to think I would have pushed forward and fought for what was right. Would I have stood my ground? Probably. Would I have done it with as much restraint, class and dignity as the women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels” did? Well…
As I watched, I tried to put myself into a 1980s setting where women in locker rooms were treated like human feces. Then I thought, why not do the reverse — put the actions of yesteryear in the context of today?
Below is what may have taken place if a female sportswriter in the 1970s or ’80s was live tweeting her experiences, in real time. Most of this is based on exactly what was relayed to us by the brave, strong women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels.”
Couple of notes:
* Kingman most definitely dumped water over a reporter’s head, but there was no limping on his part later. I added that as a way of relaying how the situation may have been handled differently in, say, 2013, if it had happened to not @alysonfmlb but to @alysonfooter on a day that she may or may not have been moved to use her knee as a weapon of mass destruction.
* The kindness Garvey showed to Claire Smith of the New York Times brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small gesture, but looking back, it probably was a main turning point in the lifting of this outrageous ban on women in clubhouses. And Garvey acted as he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Simple enough, no? You’d think.
* There is much more to the documentary, including the account of a landmark lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated against Major League Baseball on behalf of then-26-year-old reporter Melissa Ludtke to grant women access into locker rooms. And then there’s the unspeakable treatment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by the New England Patriots, the aftermath of which was so unbearable that Olson ended up moving to Australia for a spell to get out of the public spotlight.
To say we’ve come a long way would be laughably understated. Not only is the behavior that was so rampant in a generation ago looked down upon today, almost all of it is also illegal.
Progress can’t be made without our predecessors fighting for change. It’s just unfortunate so many had to suffer that much in order to move things forward.