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When the story about the Sept. 17 sexual harassment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by members of the New England Patriots finally surrendered its spot on front pages and in newscasts last week, it was replaced by the report of a woman sportswriter who was barred from the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room. Both stories stirred the dormant debate about a woman's right to equal access in the locker room. The Cincinnati story also left one man—Bengal coach Sam Wyche—out on a limb.
By last Saturday night, five nights after he refused USA Today reporter Denise Tom access to the Bengal locker room after a 31-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at the Kingdome, Wyche was smarting from his week-long crusade on behalf of all-male locker rooms. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had fined him one week's pay (estimated to be $23,529) for violating the league's equal-access policy. The Bengal players and coaches had been distracted by a full-scale media assault on Wyche, and they had lost valuable preparation time for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams. And though he had received phone calls and messages of support from fans in 40 states, Wyche was weary from serving as point man for a one-man army in an unwinnable war.
Wyche was in his room on the 19th floor of the Anaheim Marriott last Saturday night, with the American League playoff on TV, as he reviewed his game plan for the next day's test against the Rams. He said he hadn't slept all week. He sounded like it. He looked like it. "It's getting damn lonely out here," he said.
Wyche, who had set the media blitz and commissioner's reprimand into motion, was more defiant than beaten by week's end. "I've been fined an incredible amount for trying to do something right, damn it," he said. "Hell no, I don't regret it. I'll never regret it. No amount of a fine can make a man change his conviction. And I resent like crazy the fact that I'm being made out to be a rebel against the commissioner. I'm trying to help the situation, not hurt it. Do I feel I broke a rule and confronted the commissioner? Absolutely not. We didn't violate the spirit of the law. We married the right of equal access for all reporters to the right of human decency."
On Sunday, Wyche didn't feel so tired. The Bengals, behind Boomer Esiason's club-record 471 passing yards, bolted to a 21-0 lead, hung on for a 31-31 tie after four quarters and beat the Rams on Jim Breech's 44-yard field goal with 3:04 left in overtime. After the game, the Bengals allowed about 125 reporters into their Anaheim Stadium locker room—a dozen or so were women—but the players undressed and showered behind a yellow curtain that separated the showers from the dressing area. The curtain was put in place at the Bengals' request and with Tagliabue's approval. "It worked," Wyche said after the game. "This is a giant leap for mankind."
Well, it's a step. It all started, of course, when some Patriots—tight end Zeke Mowatt, in particular—harassed Olson in the Patriot locker room at Foxboro Stadium on Sept. 17. Tagliabue sent a memo to all 28 NFL teams, instructing them to enforce the league's equal-access rule, which says locker rooms are to be opened to all accredited media within seven minutes after games. In a team meeting on Sept. 26, Wyche read Tagliabue's statement, and then he took it upon himself to introduce a new club policy that would allow only male reporters into the Bengal locker room after a game, with the understanding that players would first talk to women reporters outside the locker room. The players, some of whom had complained recently about women in the locker room, did not press their coach for such a change in policy. They expressed lukewarm support for Wyche's proposal, with several players raising their hands amid mumblings of approval. So Wyche plowed ahead.
"League rules aren't made by intra-team voting," says NFL vice-president of communications Joe Browne. Wyche never told his bosses, Bengal vice-president Paul Brown and assistant general manager Mike Brown, of his plan to deny women reporters access to the Bengal locker room. He never told Tagliabue. At a time when a sensitive issue was most volatile, Wyche acted on his own against league policy. That was the main reason, league sources say, that Wyche received the biggest fine an NFL commissioner has ever handed a coach.
So in Seattle, when Tom showed up at the Bengal locker room after the game, Wyche told her she could talk to any player she wished—outside the locker room. She requested Esiason. While a group of male reporters waited to speak with Esiason, Wyche delivered him to Tom in the hallway. "I'm sorry for this," Esiason said to Tom, and answered her questions.
Shortly afterward, in the course of explaining his actions to the assembled media, Wyche accused Tom of being a plant and implied she was not a legitimate member of the press. "I'd like to know how many stories she's written for USA Today," he said. It so happens that in her six years with the paper, Tom's byline has appeared on more than 500 stories. This was the third time that Wyche had violated the NFL media policy, and all the incidents have occurred after the Bengals suffered tough losses. In 1986 he knocked a microphone out of a reporter's hand when he was questioned after a 34-28 defeat in Denver, and last year he refused to allow reporters into the Bengal locker room after a 24-17 loss to the Seahawks in Cincinnati.
After the Tom incident, the media horde that had taken up the Olson story in Boston now went after the Bengals, who had remained in Seattle last week to practice for Sunday's game in Anaheim. "Our hotel lobby looked like a TV studio," Mike Brown said. Wyche granted requests to appear on Donahue, Prime Time Live and Good Morning America, in addition to network weekend NFL shows.