My initial forays as rookie sportswriter into the weird world of the professional sports franchise locker room haven’t exactly been home runs.
Turns out, all I really needed was a little practice.
The phone rings. It’s a Friday afternoon, in the hottest part of August. I pick up. It’s my editor at NPR’s Only a Game. He wants me to head over to Titans training camp on Monday and do some interviews for the show the following Saturday. “Sure!” I tell him, with as much cheer as I can muster. Shit, I think, as I hang up the phone.
I know what you’re thinking, especially if you’re a female of a certain age, say between 16 and 97. You’re thinking, “What’s your @#$%!&* problem?“
A lot of my female friends, indeed, cannot understand my reluctance to penetrate the inner sanctum that is The Professional Athletes’ Locker room, and the media scrum that roils and tumbles therein. But a little backstory: I’ve done a few radio pieces about Nashville’s hockey franchise, and my most recent experience in that locker room—last spring, when the Predators made the 2nd round of the playoffs for the first time—was not exactly what I’d call auspicious.
The first clue I was in over my head: a fun-loving security guard sensed my rookiehood and directed me to a door on the opposite side of the building from the actual media entrance. Touché! So hilarious! By the time I walked around the entire arena and found the correct door, I was drenched in sweat and running about five minutes late. I recall arriving, finally, at the threshold of the Preds locker room, my eyes the size of pucks, taking in the scene: huge, sweaty men loomed in front of lockers, spotlighted by TV cameras and surrounded by a teeming horde of reporters struggling to shout each other down.
A deep breath, and into the breach. I glanced desperately at my list of players and photos…how on earth was I going to figure out who was who? It was 15 minutes before I calmed down enough to realize: their names are on their lockers, you idiot. <sigh>
Finally, I found a player I wanted to interview and waited patiently for my turn, but the minute I opened my mouth, he…wait for it…turned and ran away. I swear I am not making this up. One of only 2 female reporters in the room, and most likely the only hockey newbie, I was getting a little deer-in-the-headlights at this point. I wasn’t new to reporting, but I was certainly new to the mysterious protocol of a pro locker room onto which the entire Canadian media had, apparently descended.
As I pingponged around the locker room, a kindhearted media relations person took pity on me, rushing in to prevent me from committing what would have been an egregious error: treading upon the Predators logo on the locker room rug is, apparently, considered very bad luck. I ask you: WHY would you emblazon a logo onto the middle of the floor of your professional franchise locker room, onto which no one may step, on penalty of ostracism, ridicule, and almost certain citywide blame if the team performs poorly? That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. Especially if a rookie sportswriter is bumbling around the room.
Spoiler: the story ends well. I got the feature done (without defiling the logo), and I’m pretty sure it even sounded like I knew something about hockey. Which, that week, I kinda did. Granted, I’m no expert, like local journo J.R. Lind, who’s an excellent sports beat reporter. But sometimes, it’s a writer’s job to take on something relatively unfamiliar, research as deeply as possible, deadline allowing, and get ‘er done as best you can. Humility helps in these cases—when in doubt, get help: go ask the experts. Which is exactly what I did. (Thanks, J.R. Lind.)
These are the recollections spinning around in my head like a high, hanging punt as I lug my recording gear to Titans training camp on a 105+ degree August day. After sweltering through practice and doing my best not to be the one idiot who gets flattened by a wide receiver finishing his flag pattern out of bounds, it’s locker room time.
Get in there, I tell myself, and don’t step on any damn logos.
Inside, the scene is miraculously low-key. A few veteran sportswriters casually chat up the headliner types, while a team of extraordinarily helpful media folks helps me choose players to interview.
While I can’t say that wandering around the Titans’ locker room is a comfortable experience, exactly, I must admit that it’s by no means the gauntlet of horrors I’d expected. The players I meet are polite, helpful, and a lot more articulate than folks generally expect professional football players to be. And this being the beginning of the season, there’s no media swarm to outshout.
What I’m not quite prepared for, however, is the nakedness.
It seems absurd, in retrospect, to think that a football locker room wouldn’t contain men in various stages of undress. Which is, to put it mildly, a bit disconcerting. Eye contact, I keep telling myself. Because here’s the thing: I do not actually want to look at these fellows’ private zones. I am about eight years older than the most senior veteran in the room. As for the rookies, I’m old enough to be their mama. All I really want is to point a mic at these guys, get the interviews done, get the hell out of their house, and quit invading their privacy. But it’s like a 14-car pileup in opposing-direction traffic: you don’t want to look at it, but it tugs on your eyes like a horror movie.
And then comes the moment when I realize that the place where someone has stationed me for interviews is, comically enough, right in front of the shower doors. It’s not enough that gigantic men are strolling all around me swathed only in what look like miniscule white washcloths, which occasionally drop to the floor menacingly. And that all I really want is to show these men the professional courtesy of not staring at them.
But it’s a locker room. And the people populating it are Greek statues with the power of locomotion. And now, every minute or so, the shower doors swing open, and there, just beyond, shines the full glory of The Titans. I concentrate furiously on the
pubis pupils of the linebacker with whom I’m pleasantly conversing. Get me out of here, I think, smiling and nodding politely to the vast, shirtless linebacker, as I grope for try to recall the questions I’m supposed to ask.
And then comes the human moment: one of the guy’s buddies hollers at him, “Quit puffing your chest out for the reporter!” They both laugh, and he looks chagrined, hollers back at his teammate to shut up. This guy doesn’t need to puff his chest out, I think. It’s already the size of a shipping container. And then I realize: like many large, voracious mammals, these guys are probably just as afraid of me as I am of them.
OK, probably not. But still. Like me, they’re wary. They don’t want me to write something that makes them look stupid, any more than I want to look stupid by not knowing the protocol of their locker room…or by glancing downward and lapward, which most likely constitutes a rookie-reporter-hazing foul of the same magnitude as jumping up and down on the Predators’ Kittycat graphic.
From that moment on, I’m calm. We’re all just folks here, right? If these guys decide to put on pants at some point, they’ll do it one leg at a time. I thank the puffed-out linebacker and move on to my last few interviewees, maintaining eye contact, getting the job done. Feeling very small, overdressed, and almost as if I belong. Almost.
Thanks, guys, for going easy on the rookie.
(You can hear excerpts of those interviews, as part of an “Only a Game” NFL wrap-up story, here.)