Society

QB Cam Newton’s sexist comments show sports is still a ‘man’s world’: veteran Ottawa reporter reflects

In response to Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers quarterback, who recently laughed at female reporter’s question, Ottawa Magazine wanted to share Lisa Wallace’s experience of covering sports in Ottawa over the past 20 years — in particular “fending off sexual harassment in the macho, testosterone-filled locker-room environments”

Over the years, I’ve joked with my friends that I see more naked men in a year than most women see in a lifetime. If I were a doctor, it wouldn’t be a big a deal, but as a rookie sports reporter, it was something I wasn’t prepared for — and 20 years later, it isn’t any easier to deal with.

Being one of the few female reporters in the city hasn’t been all bad. I know I’ve gotten stories simply because I am a woman, and I’m okay with that. I’ve been able to tell some emotional, compelling stories. Sure, over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to cover Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, the Memorial Cup, and World Junior Championships. And covering the big events has been fun, but some of my most memorable stories were about the losses. There’s something gut-wrenching about walking into a locker room and seeing entire teams in tears after they’ve played their hearts out.

Finding ways to describe their emotions has been a great challenge.

But a bigger challenge has come in fending off sexual harassment in the macho, testosterone-filled locker-room environments.

When I first started freelancing for the Ottawa Citizen two decades ago, it didn’t come as a shock to me that coaches, players, and GMs were surprised to see a female reporter. For example, one of my first assignments was to interview the Hull Olympiques’ general manager, Charlie Henry. I let the office secretary know I was there to do an interview, and she told me to wait in the hall — Mr. Henry would be out in a minute. Shortly thereafter, a man popped his head out, looked around, smiled at me, and went back to the office. A moment later he came back and said, “You’re the sports reporter, but you’re a girl! I’ve never seen a female sports reporter!”

Twenty years on and this kind of outwardly surprised reaction is gone, but plenty of the locker-room antics remain. Sports change rooms are usually one big room. Athletes come off the field and start dropping equipment and uniforms and don’t care who’s around — that is, with the exception of hockey, which sees athletes talk to the media in one room and then head to another to shower. In general, hockey has always been the most progressive of sports, the players seemingly having fewer issues dealing with female reporters. But it hasn’t always been ideal.

Early in my career, the Senators had a communications director who wouldn’t allow me in the locker room. I had to wait for players until they had showered and changed, which often meant waiting around longer; I would miss interviews with players who had completely forgotten they were supposed to meet in a different area. Thankfully, that guy was replaced and I was given the same access as everyone else.

Baseball, on the other hand, was another story!

Covering Triple-A baseball was often a challenge, especially when interviewing visiting teams. Walking through locker rooms, I would deal with shouts of “Hey, baby” or “Honey, what’s your hurry? Don’t you like what you see?” I can remember one incident when four players, all naked, stood in front of me to block the exit and just laughed and said, “Why don’t you stay a while, honey?” I was so angry that I called the International League and told them that if they didn’t have a sexual harassment policy in place, they had better establish one because I was done dealing with this kind of behaviour. Things didn’t change overnight, but a policy was implemented.

Football was much the same. When I covered the now defunct Renegades, players had no problem being interviewed naked; to them, it was funny — and their teammates would just laugh. Thankfully, the Redblacks have a different culture. There’s still an abundance of nakedness in the locker room, but head coach Rick Campbell has made his position clear: if anyone should disrespect me, he wanted to know about it, and it would be dealt with.

There are a lot more women covering sports these days, but in Ottawa, we’re still a very small group: more often than not, I’m the only female at practice or a press conference, and it can be lonely. While my male counterparts have always been very accepting, there are days when I miss having someone to just talk girl talk with or someone who understands how challenging reporting can be for women.

The industry has come a long way in 20 years, but sports still tends to be a man’s world, and I’m not sure that will ever change.

As for me, I just want to continue finding great stories and maybe inspire a girl or two to follow in my footsteps — even if it means she might see more than she bargained for.

Lisa Wallace goes from watching professional athletes in action to standing on the sidelines cheering on her two children