Out of the Ivory Tower into the Locker Room

I had no doubt. I had considerable fear. Charles Haley was going to kill me. And my only weapons of self-defense against this menacing, frothing, manic-depressive, race-baiting menace were: a) My theoretically quick wit, which was whispering to me a suggestion that we run out of the 1992 Cowboys locker room, tails 'tween our legs; and

b) a flimsy notepad and a crappy pen.

It was Haley's first week in Dallas, and we knew each other a little bit from our time in San Francisco. I knew all about him urinating on 49ers team president Carmen Policy's office floor and about doing the same to teammate Tim Harris' car. I was one of the few people who knew about Charles, while in a film session with then-defensive coordinator George Seifert, reaching out in the darkness and wrapping his hands around Seifert's throat. I was on the NFC team bus at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii when Haley gathered up some black players and within earshot of a white NFC linebacker, suggested "playfully'' that the group ban the white guy and create an exclusive "Soul Patrol'' for the upcoming game. And I was standing there at 49ers headquarters during the numerous times when a female reporter would enter the room and he would wag his unclothed midsection at her, or when a rather mousy-looking out-of-town writer would arrive in the locker room and Charles would simulate a sex act with him and then announce loudly that the media intruder was "a f---in' fag.''

So Charles Haley was a miscreant. But I'd never done anything to him. And he'd never done any real damage to me.

Until this day.

I introduced myself to Charles. He literally growled. I asked if I could have a moment of his time. He spun around and, with body language and language-language, did everything but kick the hell out of me. He was relentless (the "assault,'' if you will, went on for 10 minutes or so), he was brutal, he was hateful. I'm a bit amazed at this myself, but I stood my ground. Had to. The locker room, you see, isn't just Charles Haley's office. It's my workplace, too. It wasn't a matter of manhood, but rather, of employment. So I kept replying to every disgusting sentence of his with a sentence of my own: "OK, Charles, I'll quote you on that.'' And then I wrote it down. Word for filthy word. I could feel the heat from Haley, but I could also feel something else. ... Eyes. Lots of them. Other media. Other Cowboys.

The next day, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, there it was: My word-for-filthy-word account of my visit with Cowboys newcomer Charles Haley. A big exclusive. His first interview, and one of his few total one-on-one interviews.

You should know that I'm no hero here. This goes on every day in the reporters/athletes relationship. It's a competitive world. We might like them, but we can't be unabashed fans. They might like us, but we remain outsiders. So people argue. They push. They grow irate. And they play on while we write on. ... and both factions come back to the locker room tomorrow for another go-round.

I am therefore stunned -- no, offended -- that a big-timer like the Chicago Sun-Times/ESPN "Around The Horn'' star Jay Mariotti doesn't see his job as so many of the rest of us do.

Mariotti, as you probably know, is involved in a pissin' match with Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Guillen called him "a f---in' fag'' (which resonates in a familiar tone from the world of undereducated jocks). Now, Guillen doesn't need me to defend him, but. ...

There are two counter aspects to this conflict that have gone grossly under-reported. One is that Mariotti's columns reek of a twisted homophobia, a fake manliness. He is an equal-opportunity offender. Examples? Ex-Sox Frank Thomas, who you know as "The Big Hurt,'' is referred to by Mariotti as "The Big Skirt.'' (Get it?) And ex-Cub LaTroy Hawkins is referred to by Mariotti as "Latoya.'' (Get it?) The other is that Mariotti is now pushed to reveal that he doesn't much bother going into clubhouses and locker rooms and such.

So understand: Mariotti got called an unmanly name after years of unmanly name-calling himself. ... but avoids dealing with it all properly by simply calling his names from the Ivory Tower of the press box, or safer still, his living-room sofa.

To me, that's more shocking that somebody calling somebody a fag.

Showing up in the locker room isn't a macho thing; it's simply part of the job. I don't go into the Cowboys locker room to throw fists with Charles Haley; I go in there to gain insight, to gather facts, to get the perspective of the Cowboys players (and coaches and staffers) who put their reputations and sometimes their lives on the line for a game. That fascinates me. THEY fascinate me.

And to write about Jerry Jones or Terrell Owens or Bill Parcells or Roy Williams or Mike Zimmer or, yeah, even Charles Haley, without talking to them? Well, then what do I need a press pass for? What am I allowed access for?

I have tried to never tell, for instance, a Jerry Jones story, that he wasn't in on, that he didn't tell, that he didn't get the chance to rebutt or refute. Over the course of 17 years covering the Cowboys in Dallas, I have engaged in conflicts with the best of 'em: Jerry, Jimmy, Emmitt, Michael, Troy, Switzer, Lacewell, you name it. Almost without exception, the conflict fades and the relationship continues because they understand I was simply doing my job. AND, I wasn't backstabbing them; I was, at worst, FRONT-stabbing them. Getting them to be available to me BEFORE I write it, and making myself available to them AFTER I write it. I had the good fortune of learning this rule from some of the best: D/FW columnist Randy Galloway is from that tough-talkin' school. He did me the service of teaching me the etiquette upon my arrival in 1990 (and did so despite the fact that we worked at rival papers!). I learned from Brad Sham, who tells it like it is on broadcasts and then sometimes hears about it after wives relay his unkind analysis to their Cowboy husbands. I learned from Michael Irvin, who helped me understand that my "negative'' story is all the more powerful if it allows the subject to "tattle'' on himself, to be negative or harsh in his self-critique.

I've been a beat writer, columnist, reporter, talk-show host, since 1982. All of it still comes down to reporting. Not barking as loudly as I can. Not making up cleverly insulting names for people. Not forming an ludicrous opinion just to sell papers. Reporting.

And when I report on something controversial, something that affects a Cowboy's life, and announce it to now thousands of TheRanchReport.com readers, I have the obligation to, as best I can, let that Cowboy be in on it, and confront me about it. You can't talk tough in the paper or on the radio and say things you wouldn't say to the man's face. You just can't. And if I can rip him, he should be able to rip me, right?

It is uncomfortable to do so. (Especially because as much as the locker room is MY workplace, too, the athletes retain a powerful and understandable upper hand.) But it's the right thing to do. And I'm ashamed that it's now acceptable to do anything less. Ashamed that it is now acceptable to act the coward.

An interesting final chapter on Charles Haley and me: Years later, I happened to be at a Dallas watering hole watching a game. I spotted Haley at another table, and could sense a confrontation coming. Haley did indeed call me over. And he was indeed in the mood to rip me up. So Charles begins to slide out of his booth, toward me -- and then his path is blocked.

His boothmates, Michael Irvin and Erik Williams, took turns calming him down (Irvin's job) and holding him back (Big E's job). They saved my life -- or at least my well-being -- while laughing the whole time, having seen Charles pull this stunt many, many times.

I've never quizzed Irvin and Williams as to why they intervened, mostly because I assume I know: They respected the fact that all those years before, even though I was a low-down, measly, good-for-nothing, never-played-in-the-NFL typist, I'd done my job. I'd stood my ground.

And they saw no purpose in allowing any man to have to endure in one lifetime Charles Haley's bad breath TWICE.

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