Women in Sports News

‘Let Them Wear Towels’: The Women Who Changed American Sports Forever

They broke down the barriers to the ultimate men’s inner circle. Eleanor Clift on the female sportswriters in ESPN’s new documentary about the landmark era in feminist history.

08.10.13 8:45 AM ET

Sports was once the ultimate man’s world, and getting women sportswriters into the locker rooms of the major sports teams was one of the major battles in feminist history. Opponents said it would violate the players’ privacy, and the women seeking access were accused of being voyeurs.

“I don’t know a reporter, male or female, who likes to go into a locker room,” says Betty Cuniberti, the first woman in the Dodgers press box. She says the locker room is “unsexy, smelly, sweaty, and awful … not a place you’d really want to go … but it’s part of the job; it’s where the stories are.”

Cuniberti worked hard to show she could do her job without the locker room access routinely granted to male sportswriters. She recalls asking Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes at the team’s pre-Rose Bowl media day at Disneyland to ride the Matterhorn with her, which he did—and her story got great play in the San Bernadino Sun Telegram. But the inability to get to players immediately after a game took its toll. “Death by a thousand cuts,” Cuniberti calls it. “I came to think this was bigger than myself.”

Around the same time, Melissa Ludtke was working for Sports Illustrated, covering baseball and, in her words, feeling “like a stranger in a strange land.” She managed to talk herself into manager Billy Martin’s office, where she sat on a couch until she got thrown out. At first she didn’t tell her editor about the incident, wanting to prove she could do her job “not whining, not complaining.” Some players helped, funneling her quotes, but when the player’s rep gave the OK for her to come into the locker room, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said no, that he hadn’t polled the players’ wives, and their children would be ridiculed.

“We were the pioneering generation,” Ludtke said in a panel discussion after a July screening in Washington of the ESPN documentary Let Them Wear Towels. “That’s how we did it, we put up with a lot,” she said. But as the women’s movement gained steam, the locker room became the new frontier, and the legal climate friendlier. In 1977, Time Inc., Ludtke’s publisher, sued Major League Baseball for refusing to allow her to interview players in the locker room during the World Series. “I was 26 years old,” she said, and it was pretty heady stuff.

When she won the suit, there was great joy “and I felt that I mattered—and damn it, I knew sports,” she said, still marveling at the events that changed her life after she graduated college with a major in art history. She had never seen any other woman do sports reporting—“except Phyllis George, and she was Miss America, not my career path.” There was no Twitter, no Facebook—“we knew nothing about what’s going on,” she said. She was baking bread on Cape Cod without any job prospects when she sat across a dinner table from sports broadcaster Frank Gifford. He told her, “You know a lot of sports for a girl.”

Gifford invited her to stop by ABC, where she didn’t get hired but where she met Billie Jean King, who inspired her as she did so many other women of that generation. Christine Brennan, an award-winning sportswriter now with USA Today, was a 15-year-old growing up in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, when King faced off against Bobby Riggs in 1973 for what he called the Battle of the Sexes. King was at the top of her game “and he was a 55-year-old washed-up self-described male chauvinist pig,” Brennan recalled, calling Riggs the greatest gift to the women’s movement. “I had never seen a woman beat a man at anything.”

Everybody watched the match—90 million viewers and the woman wins—“I can’t overstate how big that was,” says Brennan. The barriers started falling after that, but years later, well into the ’80s and beyond, attitudes were not fully evolved. Brennan’s advice on entering a locker room: “Be a little blind and a little deaf.” She recalls taunts, “Make her look … is this what you want … do you want to take a bite out of this …” “Players were doing things that would get them arrested on a street corner,” Brennan said.   

The women profiled in the documentary persevered, but there were casualties. Lisa Olson, a prolific and talented sportswriter covering the New England Patriots for the Boston Herald, was subjected to incredibly boorish behavior. This wasn’t the ’70s, it was the ’90s, and Olson called it “mind rape.” The Patriots were fined $25,000 and individual players $12,500, but Olson’s victory in the legal system did not diminish the harassment she suffered at the hands of Patriots’ fans. “She fled to Australia,” said Brennan.

There are a lot more women covering sports today, and blatant sexism and discrimination is no longer tolerated. But challenges remain, and it took a 9-year-old girl in the panel discussion audience to sum up what the next generation faces. She said she’s the only girl playing with the boys during recess—and that some of the boys play Four Square, “which some people say is only a girl’s game,” she explained as she concluded, “more girls need to be interested in playing with the boys.”

“Are you accepted by the boys?” Brennan asked. The girl hesitated, and then confessed, “Not really.”