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The day Big Papi showed me — and his teammates — how to handle sexual harassment

SALT LAKE CITY — Long before he became America’s most beloved power hitter, the man who would lead the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years did a small thing that made a big difference for a reporter he’d never met.

It was, in fact, the kind of thing I didn’t want to acknowledge at the time because it made me feel less capable than my male counterparts. So I thanked him and moved onto the next interview, never stopping to tell him just how significant his words and actions actually were. But in the wake of a national discussion about sexual harassment and sexual assault, I feel compelled to share this story so that other men, especially men of power and influence, will understand how they can help make the world safer and more hospitable for women with the smallest bit of effort.

Four years before he helped the Red Sox break “The Curse of the Bambino,” David Ortiz, who retired as one of baseball's most beloved and successful players, wore a Buzz uniform and lived in Salt Lake City. I was making the transition from news to sports, armed more with naïve enthusiasm than actual knowledge. I was looking for subjects for a series of stories examining what it was like to be a minority athlete in Utah. A couple of people mentioned he’d be a great interview, so after practice one day, I showed up at the locker room door and waited for my interview.

I waited quite a while before a man pushing a giant laundry basket loaded with uniforms asked me if he could help me. I told him I was there to interview Ortiz, and he told me to wait. I did the same with a few other people, including players, who said they'd let him know I was waiting. Finally, someone came to get me, explaining that they weren’t used to dealing with female reporters so they had to make sure it was “safe” for me to walk through the locker room to a sort of lounge area where I could talk to Ortiz.

One player hollered ahead, and I followed, grateful for the help. I ended up talking to Ortiz and another player in some kind of training room area, adjacent to the main locker room area. While my male counterparts were free to wander the locker room as they wanted or needed, I was not. More than once, they described scenes I couldn’t see, built relationships I never had, and enjoyed access that my gender denied me. The staff did their best to accommodate us female reporters, but it was clear right away that they weren’t used to dealing with us.

Remember that the Buzz (now Bees) are a Triple A club and some of the players are just out of high school. A few of them saw a woman in the locker room and decided they couldn’t resist some junior high humor. Mostly it was looks and jokes, but sometimes they’d dare each other to drop their towels. I could hear them giggling and see their antics in my peripheral vision as I tried to conduct my interview.

I’d dealt with harassment before.

In fact, it was worse in some ways on the news side. Sometimes it was, like this particular incident, meant to be a joke. Other times, I felt a violence behind it that was unsettling and a little scary.

My experiences taught me many coping mechanisms. Responses included making a joke, pretending it didn’t happen, asking nicely for the behavior to stop or explaining why I didn’t appreciate what was being said or done. But, if I’m honest, my most common coping mechanism was ignoring the bad behavior altogether. I focused on my subject with intensity. I asked my questions; I recorded the answers. I did my job as quickly as I could and then later, when I was in the safety of my home, I laughed, cried, complained and sometimes tried to figure out ways to make changes.

On this particular day, I stood in front of a mountain of a man asking him questions about his life as a minority man in a predominantly white community. It’s not the kind of conversation you want to have in a locker room of any kind, but Ortiz was the kind of guy who made anything easier.

I don’t know what happened to the left of us, I just heard the laughing. My eyes stayed locked on Ortiz, who without hesitating, turned to his teammates and sent a message that not only changed some of the behavior, it gave me an idea to prevent this situation.

“Hey, guys,” he said smiling and without raising his voice, “Leave her alone. She's just trying to do her job."

Then he turned back to me and continued whatever story he was telling me. No one got mad. No one responded. No one argued. And, not surprisingly, whatever was going on near us, stopped.

I left grateful for the interview, but more grateful for his decision to stand up for me. It came early in my sportswriting career, and it gave me the courage to ask team managers, owners and others for help in solving problems.

What Ortiz did that day was send a message that stayed with that team for the rest of the season — treat a female reporter with the same professionalism you offer men. Any time I came, I was escorted to the manager’s office and I was able to do my interviews without incident. Eventually, the team’s management changed the way we did postgame and feature interviews and both male and female reporters were offered an interview room adjacent to the locker room.

The other lesson I learned from Ortiz that day was when men stand up to other men, sexual harassment ends. When women stand up to men, the behavior gets rationalized and we get criticized. No one wants to be known as the humorless (insert your favorite expletive insulting women here). So we do whatever we have to do to compete in a world that constantly makes us feel second-guessed and second-class.

So when our contentious presidential election spurred talk of “locker room” talk and whether or not that was a real danger to women, or just some bad language we should somehow be used to because vulgarity is everywhere, I thought of my now famous subject and that very beautiful moment.

I decided to share it in hopes that men will realize that everything they do or say sends messages. His decision to confront men behaving badly that day sent a message that women shouldn’t be treated that way. It reminded me that I don’t have to take that kind of abuse. It prompted me to ask the organization to come up with a consistent, workable plan that would allow me to simply do my job.

Harassment isn’t just something people “get over.” When I was harassed, I felt like my power had been undermined. It created an environment in which I felt vulnerable, unwanted and bullied. It made it difficult to confront those who needed to be asked tough questions. When it came from a subject I had to cover, it created anxiety and stress every time I had to deal with him.

And what Donald Trump described in the now famous “Access Hollywood” tapes isn’t just sexual harassment. He described, according to the law, sexually assaulting women. The fact that we’re debating the gravity of Trump being so comfortable with his beliefs and behaviors that he bragged about them to another powerful, influential man without rebuke is the real reason I chose to write about what Ortiz did for me 18 years ago.

When Ortiz stood up for me, I felt empowered. I felt stronger, and that I could and should stand up to people who behaved this way toward me and others. It was a little like being bullied for years and then suddenly the captain of the football team calls out the bullies and tells them you’re cool.

Every time a sexist bully is challenged, he has to examine the underlying thoughts that prompted him to say or do something inappropriate. Which is why I have no doubt that when men challenge each other on dangerous stereotypes, on sexist words and actions and on their attitudes toward and about females, the world is safer for all of us.

My plea is to all men, but especially to those like Ortiz, who hold special power in our society. Please think about the messages, intended and unintended, your words and behavior send to those who will follow you simply because you’re athletically gifted. Please look for opportunities to educate each other. Please stand up for women because, frankly, some men only listen to other men. If you aren’t sure what sexual harassment is or how you can help, ask the women in your life, the women in your office or the women you meet out there in the world.

Attitudes beget action. If a man thinks he can grab a woman, in any way, without permission, then it shouldn't be much of a stretch to see how this reveals his view of women as something instead of someone. It isn't much of a stretch to see how he may not value females in any environment, how his thinking may lead to, at best dismissive behavior and, at worst, outright abuse.

The world is a much different, more dangerous place for us. If you don’t believe me, try talking to some women you know. Statistics suggest as many as 25 percent of women are victims of sexual assault, and I believe that statistic is wrong because most women never report the groping, the grabbing or the molesting. But it changes us and most of the time, not for the best. So please listen, please speak up, and please, the next time you think about making a joke or comment that involves a woman’s appearance, try to hear in that booming, accented voice, “Hey guys, leave her alone. She’s just trying to do her job.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports