Athletes are always answering questions in the buff. The Mag decided to flip the script.
This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
They thought I'd be wearing a towel. I'm sitting in Locker Room 6 of the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, Calif., and although the chill from the steel chair is nipping at my bare ass, it's the bewildered looks from my interview subjects that are giving me goose bumps. Usually I'm the one barging into locker rooms to pester naked athletes. Today, The Mag has turned the tables. I'm still asking the questions, but the athletes -- LA Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier and enforcer Kevin Westgarth -- are clothed while I'm in the buff.
Friends often ask what it's like to deal with nude jocks in a locker room. It's not that difficult to find out for yourself. Go to your gym and stalk the biggest guy there; as soon as he exits the shower, shove a tape recorder in his face and start barking questions. You could wait for him to get dressed, but then you might not get the interview. So yes, it's awkward. You have to remember that you're invading their private space -- even when they seem casual about it.
In the locker room, Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett says, you can see "anything from guys play-fighting naked to a grown man in a towel dancing to Justin Bieber." Yet the tone isn't always lighthearted. Although sports has made strides since Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the Patriots' locker room in 1990, a roomful of naked men can still be an inhospitable place. A female colleague of mine often deals with players going the full monty the moment they see her approach.
Male reporters have it so much easier by comparison. Unless our eyes start to wander, athletes rarely single us out. Still, there's an unwritten rule that we should wait for players to at least have underwear or a towel on before asking questions -- and that sometimes means they stay naked either to avoid questions or to gain a psychological advantage in an interview.
The player's steady, unbroken eye contact -- I think they can tell the circumference of my pupils -- calms my nerves.”
Because I had spent the past six months talking to the athletes who bared all for the Body Issue, The Mag figured I'd be an au naturel choice for this role reversal. To prepare, I sought counsel from some of my Body interviewees. Roller derby pro Suzy Hotrod suggested I walk around naked as much as possible. So in the month before I left for LA, I became an urban nudist. (Fortunately, I work from home.) Apolo Anton Ohno offered a pearl of wisdom one would expect from a speed skater: "Make sure it's not cold." Problem is, as I'd soon find out, Locker Room 6 is poorly insulated and sandwiched between two rinks. My Hebrew National would have no choice but to bear the elements.
Then again, that's only fair. This experiment was meant to re-create a typical locker room interview, not a fancy photo shoot. In the interest of journalistic integrity, my nudity would have to feel routine, not planned. It'd be weird only if I made it weird, right?
So to psych myself up on the big day and establish my domain early, I strip down before Bernier and Westgarth enter. The assistant photographers think that it just makes things weirder.
But when the French-Canadian goalie and the 6'4" bruiser walk in, I use my unexpected overexposure to gain my own edge. Overcoming buckling knees and screaming insecurities, I stand up, walk over and shake their hands. With the players laughing and struggling to figure out exactly what they had agreed to, I sit back down, cross my legs and begin firing off questions. What do you think of the Kings this year? "Definitely excited," Westgarth says. What are the expectations for the team? "We're pretty confident," Bernier says. Me, not so much.
The players quickly adjust to their surroundings. Their steady, unbroken eye contact -- I think they can tell the circumference of my pupils -- calms my nerves. In fact, Bernier tells me, eye contact from a player to a reporter in the locker room is the telltale sign that it's an okay time to talk. "Wait until a guy is on his own and clearly does have a minute," adds Westgarth, who majored in psychology at Princeton.
Soon the questions shift from the mundane to the elephant in the room: one-sided nudity. As the players chat on unfazed, it becomes clear that any lingering discomfort is all mine. They explain that by the time they have reached the big leagues, guys like Bernier -- who was a major junior hockey star at 16 -- are used to public nakedness. "It's just ingrained with most of us at this point," Westgarth says. "The whole nudity thing doesn't bother us." For some, the exhibitionism is actually enjoyed. Bernier tells the story of a peer who always wears a towel around his neck -- never his waist -- when giving interviews. Part of locker room reporting means figuring out who covers up and who lets it all hang out. The players, in turn, grow accustomed to the procedure too. "You deal with the same people all the time, especially at home, so it's not that big of a deal," Westgarth says.
I can see what Westgarth means; this isn't that big of a deal. As the interview progresses, I actually feel more in control of the situation in the locker room than I ever have. Maybe the topic encourages them to let their guard down, or perhaps my being naked has established some bizarre kinship among us, as I am the one showing I have nothing to hide. Whatever the case, we are all respectful of the fact that clothed or not, both sides have a job to do. Ultimately, that tacit agreement is the key to any successful locker room interview.
Strangely, ending the interview proves to be as awkward as beginning it. Forgetting another journalistic tenet almost as obvious as remaining clothed, I lose all objectivity and tell Bernier and Westgarth that I hope they win the Cup.
"Us too," Westgarth says. "But in that case, you'd have to do this again next year."
Nah, that would be weird.
Morty Ain is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.