I'm not a sportswriter, but I sometimes play one on the radio.
An editor friend of mine calls it "parachuting in" — reporting on a topic that's not your regular beat. For me, tackling a pro football or hockey story means many hours of extra homework to get up to speed. Sometimes, it means humbly calling on human terabyte drives like J.R. Lind for coaching.
And then, it means daring to penetrate that shadowy inner sanctum that is the professional athletes' locker room. The horror.
It's hard enough to stride self-assuredly into a roomful of semi-naked behemoths when you fully understand the journalistic protocol therein. But being a rookie in a professional space that's nearly devoid of females (or fully-clothed males) can produce a powerful sensation of overdressed underconfidence.
A girl in Guyville can sometimes get the sense that everyone's quietly watching, to see whether you belong in the manscape you've presumed to invade. The only way to prove you belong there is to boldly go and behave as if you do. It helps a lot if you know what you're doing. But when it's your first time, faking it with aplomb is your only option.
For a female newbie in a boys' club, there's extra pressure to perform.
I felt that pressure acutely as a young flight instructor based at BNA in the late 1990s. At first, I took a deep breath every time I keyed the mic to introduce myself to air traffic control. I was often the smallest, slowest plane in the airspace and the only female voice on the frequency.
I imagined all those big-iron pilots out there just waiting for me to stutter idiotically or commit some grave act of pilot error. So I pumped my voice full of bravado and flew by the numbers.
After a few months, I didn't need the bravado anymore, because my confidence was real. Controllers knew my voice and greeted me as a colleague. I belonged in their airspace as much as any booming-voiced jet driver did, and everybody knew it.
The steamy airspace of the Tennessee Titans' locker room a few summers ago was another matter.
My only previous experience with big-time-sports locker room penetration was doing a couple of quick-turn Predators (the hockey team in Nashville) pieces for NPR during the playoffs. Compared to that crazed media scrum, the Titans' preseason locker room seemed miraculously low-key. A few veteran sportswriters casually chatted up the headliner types, while a team of helpful media folks lined up players for me to interview.
One major difference in my NHL vs. NFL reportorial experiences: interviewee dress code.
I shouldn't have been surprised that a pro-football locker room might contain men in all possible stages of undress. Here, it was perfectly normal for gleaming Greek statues to locomote all around me, swathed in towels that occasionally slid to the floor like white penalty flags.
Maintain eye contact, I told myself, pointing a long, fuzzy shotgun microphone at a vast, shirtless linebacker. I concentrated furiously on his pubis pupils as I struggled to recall my list of questions. Mercifully, other than his physical attributes, he was an unintimidating sort — articulate, polite and funny — and he did his best to put me at ease.
It worked ... until a swinging door just behind the nice lineman rocked open, revealing a spacious shower room, populated with Titans in all their glory. Cue up the porn soundtrack.
Based on a common Google search that (mis)directs traffic to my blog, I'm pretty sure that the terms "female reporter locker room" feature prominently in the virtual pornscape. But I assure you: Fantasy and reality are two different things. Private ruminations aside, I am not actually up for a sword-crossing extravaganza — not even with strapping fellows the size of shipping containers, all too young to remember The Love Boat.
That afternoon, all I wanted was to show these folks the professional courtesy of not staring at them, finish the interviews without any grave acts of journalistic error, and get the hell out of their private area personal space.
My next interview was with a barrel-torsoed new recruit whose buddies were apparently making faces at him from behind me as I asked questions. "Quit puffing your chest out for the reporter!" somebody yelled. The new guy looked chagrined, and hollered back at his teammate to shut up.
Everyone laughed, and I laughed with them. That's when I finally relaxed into the brief conversation, one rookie to another. It struck me that this guy was probably just as afraid of me as I was of him. A newbie with something to prove, he didn't want to say anything stupid on the record any more than I wanted to embarrass myself by mouth-breathing, glancing at somebody's junk or otherwise violating some sort of unwritten locker-room protocol.
Besides, if any of these guys got around to putting on pants at some point, I figured, they'd most likely do it one leg at a time. We're all just folks here, right?
I still felt undersized, overdressed, and relatively un-field-tested. I wasn't a pro at this yet, nor was I one of the guys. But I also wasn't unwelcome.
Turns out, all I needed was a little practice.