Sports

TARA SULLIVAN

40 years later, a thank you to a trail-blazing sportswriter

Melissa Ludtke, a writer for Sports Illustrated, is shown on the job in her office in New York, Jan. 23, 1978. She is currently involved in a court case to allow women reporters in sports locker rooms. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)
dave pickoff/AP file
Melissa Ludtke in 1978, the year of her landmark court case.

This one is personal.

Here’s the scene: I’m sitting at an airport terminal Monday morning in Detroit, waiting for my flight home after the Patriots’ loss to the Lions Sunday night. I’m on the phone with a woman in New York. I’ve read about her, heard about her, shared mutual friends over the years with her, yet I’ve never actually met her, or even spoken with her.

I find myself a little nervous, hopeful that the research I’ve done will be enough to fuel a substantive conversation. From what I’ve learned, she was a stickler for preparation. I want to measure up.

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Mostly, I want to say thank you.

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No, I need to say thank you.

Forty years ago Tuesday, in a federal courtroom in New York City, Melissa Ludtke, backed by her then-employer Sports Illustrated, successfully sued the New York Yankees and won the right for female reporters to have access to professional sports locker rooms.

Forty years later, I walked out of Ford Field’s visitors locker room as a direct descendant of Ludtke’s fight, having interviewed a room full of football players who know no other way. That was Patriots captain Devin McCourty acknowledging as much, while genuinely expressing interest, despite the disappointment of a lopsided loss, in hearing what Ludtke had done.

“Congrats to her,” he said. “There’s nothing like blazing a trail, and I think it’s awesome.”

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That the 31-year-old, nine-year NFL vet would say as much is not surprising, given his own activism on behalf of equal rights for African-Americans. But just as notable was his easy acceptance of this as normal, a sentiment teammate Chris Hogan echoed by telling me, “All the guys in here respect women in the locker room, their opinion and their questions. They’re just another person in the locker room.”

“I think things like that have to be passed to see progression, to see other people do a great job which you’re kind of not allowing them to do,” McCourty said. “I think that goes through the history of our country. So it’s great that women, now you don’t even think twice about it. It shows the progress.”

It wasn’t always like that.

Of course the journey is not over. Women are still vastly outnumbered in the sports media landscape and face a far different brand of ugly criticism than male counterparts. Not when a player like Cam Newton laughs off a question from a “female” as “funny” because she asked specifically about “routes”; not when online trolls have a field day over the groundbreaking announcement that two women (Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm) will call an NFL game for the first time; not when as recently as 2011 I was denied access to a Masters locker room solely because I was female.

But it is ongoing. Every time we turn on the television and see women’s faces, or we open a tab and read a woman’s byline, there is a debt of gratitude to Ludtke. She had the guts to go where no one had gone before, not just into a pro locker room (reporters such as Robin Herman and Jane Gross were already inside NBA and NHL locker rooms), but in front of a judge, in the face of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn and American League president Lee MacPhail, against the tide of public opinion that didn’t (and often times still doesn’t) understand that the pregame and postgame locker rooms are a workplace, and if it’s open to one, it must be open to all. That’s what judge Constance Baker Motley ruled.

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“Since plaintiff Ludtke has been deprived, under color of the authority of the state, of rights secured to her by both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution . . . she is entitled to the injunctive relief sought,” the decision concluded.

“An injunction will therefore issue enjoining defendants from enforcing the policy of total exclusion of accredited women sports reporters from the locker rooms of the clubhouses at Yankee Stadium.”

Forty years ago, she changed the course of history.

“It’s an odd answer, but it feels both like a long time and a short time ago,” the lifelong Massachusetts resident (Cambridge by way of Amherst) said from New York, where she was in town to host New York Sports Tours. “In a sense, it feels like yesterday I was going through it, and it’s hard for me to imagine an incident 40 years ago can still have such a freshness to it.

“There is a sense that we’re really back in so many ways, stuck in this same ditch in so many sad and difficult ways. But at the same time within the profession I was in, we’ve seen some visible progress. We certainly, we see it, seeing women in broadcast booths today.

“I think it should have happened in half this time. We have to remember there’s a slow arc of history and it’s bending in the right direction. We see that happening. That gives me hope.”

She gave us access. While colleagues sneered, fearing she was there to take their jobs, while baseball resisted, citing (no joke) concerns that players’ children would be ridiculed in school and that their wives had not been consulted, she pushed on.

And so I said thank you. From my seat in the airport, where Karen Guregian, the outstanding Patriots reporter for the Boston Herald, sat a few chairs away, where Globe colleague Nora Princiotti would be a few hours later also on her way home, where the pull of the past was strong, at once demanding and comforting, pulling us forward, pushing us further. Times have changed, but they can change even more.

Ludtke told me about the memoir she is writing, about how she went through boxes of old files to discover stacks of letters from young girls appreciative of her fight and inspired by her journey, how those letters never got the attention of the ones from angry Sports Illustrated subscribers threatening to cancel their checks, but they stayed with her more.

I didn’t write one, my 10-year-old self probably too distracted alphabetizing baseball cards or creating scrapbooks of Yankees newspaper clippings.

Better late than never. I hope.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.