Sagamore resident bears scars as pioneer woman sportswriter

by Sheldon Ocker

By the middle of the 1970s, it remained unreasonable – an outrage to many – to countenance the presence of female sportswriters in men’s locker rooms.

And what self-respecting lady would choose to enter the ultimate man cave where naked or half-dressed athletes could do or say almost anything and be assured of absolute privacy? Male sportswriters were tolerated, but it was understood they were to abide by a multitude of “rules’’ and conventions.

So it was not without trepidation that soon-to-be Eastern Kentucky University graduate Marla Ridenour, a Sagamore Hills resident, began her career as a sports reporter. She was hired by the Lexington Herald in 1976 to cover women’s and girls sports, mostly the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team.

Ridenour’s career took her from Lexington to Dayton to Columbus to Akron and finally, after 46 years, retirement from the Akron Beacon Journal. During her 23 years at the Beacon Journal, Ridenour covered milestones including two Ohio State football national championships, the Cleveland Guardians (then Indians) 2016 World Series, Kent State’s 2012 College World Series and the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship win.

During her nearly five decades in the news industry, she earned an armful of journalism awards, installation into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and an alumni award for professional achievement from Eastern Kentucky.

While covering women’s sports at the Lexington Herald, there was no need for Ridenour to visit men’s locker rooms, but to experience a full career, she knew she had to venture into the icy atmosphere.

She sensed that was not going to happen at the Herald, even though there were three women in the sports department. “That had to be unprecedented at the time,” Ridenour said.

A friend confirmed what Ridenour suspected. “I heard rumblings [by management] that women couldn’t cover men’s sports, and I started looking for a new job,’’ she said.

The Dayton Daily News hired Ridenour to cover women’s sports, but she soon was helping cover the Cincinnati Bengals. Big macho men who (mostly) detested the concept of women thinking they could ask perceptive questions about football in or out of the locker room.

The Bengals did not permit women in the locker room, so at the 1981 Super Bowl, Ridenour covered the opposing team, the San Francisco 49ers. Any interviews with Cincinnati players were done in the hallway outside the locker room.

She also began traveling to Cleveland to cover Browns games, an assignment that continued when she moved onto the Columbus Dispatch, a larger newspaper than the Daily News.

Browns owner Art Modell sanctioned women in the locker room, but that did not make Ridenour’s sojourns into the players’ inner sanctum a comforting experience.

“When I started covering the Browns, [head coach] Sam Rutigliano told me to act like I would expect my daughter to act,’’ Ridenour said, adding that the coach advised her to forewarn the players of her presence.

“As soon as I walked in, he wanted me to yell, ‘Woman in the locker room,’” Ridenour said. “I did it faithfully as long as he was coach.’’

She learned several years later from former Browns defensive end Elvis Franks that the players’ sensibilities had not been at risk.

“He said all the players near Rutigliano’s office [close to the locker room entrance] would drop their towels in unison when they heard me yell ‘Woman in the locker room,’” Ridenour said. “He told me they gave it up after a few games because I never noticed.’’

The late Chuck Heaton, who covered the Browns for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, once wrote a story suggesting that Modell buy robes for players to wear when women were in the locker room.

“I thought that was ridiculous,’’ Ridenour said.

In-your-face harassment was the exception, according to her. “It was mostly stuff behind my back,’’ Ridenour said.

She learned that players’ wives and girlfriends also objected to women sportswriters. “They thought I was trying to find a husband,’’ Ridenour said. “That shocked me, because I never considered that.’’

Thanks to pioneers like Ridenour, women covering sports these days endure much less intolerance, but vestiges of the past remain.

“Things still happen,’’ she said. “I thought we were past that.’’ ∞

Editor’s note: Marla Ridenour and Sheldon Ocker both worked in the Beacon Journal sports department from the day she arrived in Akron until the end of 2013.

Marla Ridenour, then of the Dayton Daily News, interviews
Cleveland Browns defensive back Clarence Scott in the
locker room at Municipal Stadium in 1981. Photo courtesy
of Marla Ridenour.