When Jane Gross became the first woman reporter to enter an NBA locker room in February of 1975, it merited a mere 100-word Associated Press write-up the next day. Nine months later, when Jennifer Quale entered an NBA locker room, she had her face in sports sections across the nation and others across the globe.
The first was a seasoned sportswriter breaking down a barrier; the second was doing one of the few sports stories of her career. Quale didn’t want to be a symbol of women’s liberation. She didn’t even want to set foot in a locker room, but there in New Orleans on November 5, 1975, she was tricked into both.
The history of how women first broke into locker-room reporting is often told, and the names of those who endured the insults in order to make it happen, like Claire Smith, Lesley Visser, Robin Herman, and Melissa Ludtke, are well known in the industry. Never do such stories mention Quale (rhymes with “Wally”). In one sense, this is largely fitting: these other women put in the hard work over years, tiring efforts that paved the way for later women reporters. But Quale’s locker-room foray was one of the first to make a big splash and surely deserves some place in the record.
Hers was a story of crass sensationalism and misleading news, but it’s also a reminder that publicity always has a vexed relationship to social justice, both riding on and propelling change.
“Another male stronghold has fallen,” a feature in the Los Angeles Times began the day before Quale’s surprise breakthrough. “Women have decided to become sportswriters.” A year later, the Boston Globe would declare women sportswriters “one of the hottest properties in journalism.” In the mid-1970s, every newspaper in the country was looking to add a woman—just one—to their sports sections. It was good for women in journalism, whose opportunities were slowly expanding, and good for fans, who enjoyed a new perspective on sports.
But it was a problem for others. Teams would routinely kick these women out of their press boxes. Lynda Fillmore recounted a day the Chicago Bears refused her entrance: “Pregnant, in 20-degree weather, I sat outside with my teeth chattering.” Players would often refuse to answer their questions, or belittle them when asked. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis appeared to think that the presence of a woman would doom his plane. The writers’ male colleagues were often no better, sometimes insisting teams remove the women because they interfered with their ability to swear. When Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Salter tried to attend the Baseball Writers’ Association dinner in 1973, the all-male gathering threw her out.
Fitfully, women cracked those barriers, but the locker room was a bigger challenge. Following a game, male reporters would routinely file in among the freshly showered players, gather some quotes, and then rush to put their stories together before deadline. The women, however, were told to wait outside. If they wanted quotes, they were reduced to sending in male colleagues, friends, or even husbands. These men could do the interview themselves or try to pull the desired player out of the locker room. Teams simply could have denied anyone access until after players were dressed or staged interviews in another area, but they largely ignored these options. Worse, when men and women alike were barred entry, the male reporters would carp bitterly at their women colleagues for ruining things.
The main justification for keeping women out was the athletes’ privacy—guys were naked in there, after all. But the resistance to including women in other traditionally male spaces suggests “privacy” was just a fig leaf over traditional sexism, one of many feints tried at the time. It was also said players’ wives would object, that players’ children would be ridiculed at school, or that women would pose as reporters just to get a look at men. In nearly every story about the matter, someone would sarcastically insist that male reporters should likewise be allowed into the locker rooms of female tennis players and golfers. In fact, the LPGA had stated that their locker rooms were indeed open to men, apparently without incident, but the talking point stood. It was all a lot of stupidity, hypotheticals, slippery slopes, and bad faith. It was a debate about gender and private spaces in America.
If Quale were a sports reporter, she’d have been familiar with all of this, but she wasn’t.
A native of Wisconsin, Quale moved to New Orleans in 1966 to attend college at Tulane. A year after graduating in 1970 with a degree in English, she was still unclear on what path she should take, and so when her mother came to visit, she pointed one out for her. As Quale relates from her home today in Rhode Island, her mother simply walked her daughter down to the New Orleans Times-Picayune office, went up to an editor, and said, “You’ve got to give my daughter a chance; she can really write.” It worked. Quale had recently been on a trip to Haiti, and so she wrote up something about it, the paper liked it, and hired her on to do features.
Over the next few years, she wrote just about one a week, cataloging seemingly every person or thing in New Orleans—a returning Vietnam veteran, beignets, pawn shops, and Hare Krishnas. Every so often, she’d touch on sports, with stories about a diving coach, racecar drivers, and local baseball legend Vida Blue. This time it was the New Orleans Jazz’s colorful head coach Butch van Breda Kolff. He and the team had arrived in New Orleans just the year prior. They were bad, but off to a good start at 6-1, and the night Quale went to see them play against the Lakers they would set an NBA attendance record. During the game, Quale recorded a few details about van Breda Kolff’s courtside behavior, and then when it ended the paper’s sports editor, Bob Roesler, suggested she head down to the locker room for an interview. She says today she hadn’t considered the idea until that moment. She was nervous but had no idea how nervous she should have been.
The locker room reporting issue had heated up in January of that year when two women were granted access at the National Hockey League All-Star game, the first known instance of a woman reporting from the locker room of any of the four major North American sports. A flurry of controversy followed, and most NHL teams insisted it wouldn’t happen again.
It was on the heels of this event that Gross would make her first entrance into the Knicks locker room on February 16, 1975, and then, with a few hiccups, make her way into locker rooms across the NBA’s rival American Basketball Association, getting more notice as she did so. From what I could find, no other woman reporter in the country was doing the same as the new basketball season began in the fall of 1975. Quale might have been the second woman reporter in an NBA locker room.
But first, she lingered at the door. Roesler encouraged her to go in, yet she faltered.
“You think they’ll be dressed, don’t you?” she reportedly told Roesler.
“Possibly,” Roesler said.
Then somebody opened the door, and she saw naked men walking all over.
“I don’t think I’ll go in,” she told Roesler.
But with the door still open, Quale felt a hand on her back. “He just shoved me in,” she told me.
“Too late,” Roesler said while applying what he described at the time as “just enough pressure to steer her through the rows of lockers.”
“He literally shoved me into the locker room and it was kind of undoing me, because most of the guys didn’t even have any clothes on after the game, and it was a little bit, well it wasn’t scary, but I was kind of uncomfortable, because they were just running around in the buff, about to take showers. It was a little bit difficult to be calm and a little bit unnerving, I must say.”
The story the next day said her visit had been cleared by Jazz management, presumably after a request by Roesler, since Quale reiterated, contrary to some of the old reports, that she had no involvement.
Apparently, the players weren’t notified. “I wish they would have warned us,” seven-foot center Mel Counts said at the time, “Otherwise it wouldn’t have looked like a nudist colony.”
By contrast, Quale says, “I remember exactly what I was wearing.” It’s hard to see in the photo, but, she recalls, “I was wearing some long, white, sort of off-white pants. I’d been in Mexico and I was wearing some kind of Mexican top with flowers on it and some craziness.”
First, Roesler guided her to the back of the room, where van Breda Kolff was taking questions. Next, Roesler set up an interview with the Jazz’s star player, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. The shooting guard said he was tired after a 30-point game, and wanted a few minutes to relax. Then he signaled for Quale to step over.
“Free spirits are fine with me,” Maravich told her. “Why don’t you go take a shower?”
Unfazed, Quale answered, “What do you think are van Breda Kolff’s best qualities as a coach?”
Quale wasn’t off-put by this treatment, then or now, just describing Maravich as “snarky.” As she sat beside him, Times-Picayune photographer Donald Stout snapped the perfect photo. Quale sits recessed in a locker, enclosed by six men, one of whom looks at the camera as though he knows its cynical purpose. She’s half-hidden among the men and their reporting equipment, but the eye is drawn through the thicket to her face, listening intently as a sweaty Maravich addresses no one in particular, holding a beer in a way that it’s tempting to overinterpret.
In just a few minutes, it was over. She left the locker room and then went with Roesler and others to the famous Napoleon House restaurant.
“They thought it was hilarious,” Quale says, “but I didn’t. I just had to keep my cool. I was completely undone.”
Roesler peppered her with questions, but she never saw a notepad and still didn’t suspect anything was in store. Of course, she says, “I should have guessed when the Times-Picayune sent a photographer to the locker room—it was pre-planned.”
“That wasn’t a really nice thing for you to do,” she told Roesler as they drank together.
It’s a mild rebuke, but one that fits with how she recalls the events, laughing as often as cringing. She seems to recall Roesler fondly, and also the era. When bringing up the Napoleon House, she pauses, asks me if I’ve been to New Orleans, and then gasps in reverie, “Boy. Those. Were. The. Days.”
The Times-Picayune’s sports page the next morning led off with a recap of the game. Towards the end appeared a teaser for Quale’s big entrance:
The story was by Roesler and it lived up to the tease. In just a couple hundred words, “Jazz Locker Bared to Girl Reporter” describes Quale “as a pretty FEMALE reporter,” “very much a Ms and not a Mr.,” and “the attractive reporter for the Times-Picayune.”
“To no one’s recollection,” the story says, “had a female ever invaded the hallowed halls of male athletic privacy in New Orleans.”
That afternoon, Quale would attend a Jazz practice, interviewing the coach during a break. Nothing from her time in the locker room made the eventual profile, and only a brief description of the game appeared. The story is mostly a succession of quotes, giving the coach’s perspective on basketball, his own personality, and women’s interest in sports, all interspersed with Quale’s descriptions of van Breda Kolff’s frantic behavior.
Before the piece would ever run, Quale would become the story once more. Roesler and the Times-Picayune weren’t done with her. The next morning, they ran another article, relating her locker room visit all over again in greater detail: “Huge Crowd Wasn’t Only (Blush!) First.”
This new telling included the details about her nervousness leading up to the event, Roesler guiding her in, and Maravich’s snark. It concludes with a friend asking Quale “how she felt about breaking the barrier.”
“I was petrified,” she said. “I’ve seen naked men before, but never ones I didn’t know.”
Quale laughs as she quotes herself now, but then, she says, “My grandmother nearly flipped.” Her father didn’t really say a word about it. “My mother, she had a really good sense of humor, but not everybody else did.” She received some obscene phone calls and letters too, which she found pretty troubling at first, but today she struggles to recall them.
From there, Quale says, “This story went viral. It was in all the papers.” It appeared in over a hundred that I’ve found here in America, and others, Quale recalls, overseas.
The story was crafted for virality. Not only does Roesler’s second stab at it add the photo of Quale next to Maravich, but it also subtracts important clarifying detail. Quale hadn’t actually broken any ground, but the woman who really had wasn’t exactly a household name, and that left some room for play, a chance to deceive without lying. The shorter version twice made clear that Quale had only made a “historic first” in New Orleans, but the longer, syndicated version says Quale “just lowered another barrier by taking part in a locker room interview.” Later, it says the “Jazz allowed the first female into men-only country.”
It would be easy to read it and think Quale was the first woman reporter in a locker room, in any place, in any sport. Indeed, she thought so herself. “I guess I was the first woman ever to walk in after the game,” she told me when we first spoke.
If it fooled Quale, it likely fooled much of the country. The various papers running the story chose headlines that repeated the Times-Picayune’s calculated vagueness, like a game of viral telephone: “Blushing Breakthrough: Dressing Room Tradition Broken”; “Barrier Falls, Woman Enters Jazz Locker Room”; “Woman Breaks Male Tradition”; “Female Breaks Tradition”; “Jennifer Quale Scores Blushing Sports First (!).”
Papers picked and chose just how much of the copy to include on their pages. Most repeated the detail that she was a “pretty blonde.” All ended with the bit about her seeing naked men before. Some even added a detail, beginning a sentence, “Ms. Quale, as she prefers to be called,” hinting that she might be a pushy feminist. They plugged her into conversations about women’s rights and reporters’ locker-room access, made her an avatar of an issue with which she was unfamiliar.
Quale remembers a woman sports reporter in New Orleans being miffed at the coverage: “She thought that that should have been her story, but I guess, you know, I was blonde and blue-eyed and all that stuff.”
It all kind of made a mockery of a serious issue. As others were fighting to get in, she was pushed in. As others sought to blend into this male environment as seamlessly as possible so they could do their jobs, she was held up as a sex object, nervous among all that male flesh. Perhaps her reluctance made her ideal, less threatening than those fighting for equal opportunity.
Quale never entered another locker room and never attended another basketball game. She left the paper soon after her 1977 wedding and thereafter focused solely on the travel-writing that had started her career, writing for Vogue, the Boston Globe, Berlitz, and Travel and Leisure. She continued this path for another decade and a half before a dire case of Lyme disease took away her ability to write.
In 1990, the Times-Picayune did a follow-up with Quale that testified to the power of the original story’s hype, saying she was “believed to be the first female reporter allowed into a men’s professional sports team locker room.” The paper had fooled not just Quale and the country, but finally even itself.
For those in the sports world, that viral story was soon overshadowed by the actions of women like Gross, who weren’t shoved through doors for publicity but gradually forced them open for the sake of opportunity. In countless retellings of the locker room struggles women sports reporters faced, Quale’s name doesn’t come up.
Yet her case is not as distinct as it initially appears.
The watershed moment in the locker room issue came in 1978, when a young Sports Illustrated reporter named Melissa Ludtke, backed by Time, Inc., sued the New York Yankees for access to their clubhouse. She won, and though the ruling only applied to New York, it wasn’t long before other baseball teams conceded defeat as well. The tipping point was not just Ludtke’s determination to force the doors open but also her publisher’s need to recover from a recent discrimination suit brought by two female employees. As Ludtke later told The New Yorker, “my suit was the most convenient way for Time, Inc. to show its support for women.” It was a laudable action spurred by impure motives.
So too with the surge in women reporters in the early ’70s. Several newspaper reports at the time noted how eagerly sought-after these journalists were. While some of these new women reporters had grown up as sports fans, other pioneering sports reporters like Nancy Scannell of the Washington Post and Cheryl Bentsen of the Los Angeles Times were placed in the job with little prior knowledge. Gross, the daughter of a famous sportswriter, admitted years into the job that she still had little interest in the subject. But like any beat a reporter gets assigned to, they picked it up and executed the job, perhaps all the more insightfully for their lack of fandom. And they were often put in those positions in order to forestall discrimination lawsuits and the attendant notoriety. (The New York Times settled its own discrimination suit in 1978).
Media empires were primarily concerned with their bottom line; it was the task of these young women to capitalize on the cracks a new legal and cultural environment were putting in the good old boy network and prove they added value. As newly hired Tracy Dodds of the Milwaukee Journal said in 1974, “I know I’m a token… But at the same time, I’m qualified.” Often, sports desks would stick women with the worst assignments; if they were savvy, they would highlight their coverage in hopes of luring a broader audience.
Publicity may even have played a role in Gross’s breakthrough as the first woman reporter in an NBA locker room. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) It wasn’t mere chance that the NBA opened its doors years before more popular sports like baseball and football did so. The league could use the attention. That Gross’s entrance came just a month after the NHL sparked a flurry of interest in the issue was probably in part a matter of publicity, whether desired by the NBA or the newspaper that had just hired her, Newsday.
But of course, that breakthrough didn’t get as much press—at first—as the one in New Orleans. Quale had no motives at all in entering that locker room; those who pushed her had ones that were far from uplifting. Yet the drivers of change are often obscure and indirect. It’s possible that seeing that picture and those misleading declarations that Quale had broken down a barrier really made people believe the battle was over. Maybe it played some small part in convincing other teams to open their doors to women reporters across American sports. Perhaps it helped prod players to begin adjusting to the future. We can’t be sure, but certainly, Quale was the first woman many Americans ever saw or even imagined in a men’s locker room, and that must have meant something.
In the many retellings of how female reporters first entered men’s locker rooms, it appears only a single source gives Quale any credit for taking part. The 1994 book Women, Media, and Sport by Pamela J. Creedon offers a “Chronology of Locker Room Access and Incidents,” cataloging a list of indignities women reporters suffered over the years. It begins with 1975: “Jane Gross, a Newsday reporter, and Jennifer Quale, a Times-Picayune feature writer, are instrumental in opening NBA locker rooms for women reporters.”
Maybe the author mistook an old headline. Or maybe it’s true.
Andrew Heisel is a writer who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He tweets @andyheisel.