The timeworn cliche of a rough old coach on the playing field calling an end to practice by yelling, “Hit the lockers, boys…” may not be what it used to be. Times have changed. Some kids refuse to use the locker room at all, and for a variety of reasons. That’s none of my concern any more. People too shy to use a locker room have problems that will likely haunt them the rest of their lives.
You just gotta learn to love a locker room. I recall the introduction to the locker room at Martin Meylin junior high just south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our gym teacher Mr. Davis was a disciplinarian. If you forget to bring the right gear for gym class, he’d make you pay the price by writing 100 times on the locker room blackboard, “I will not forget my athletic protector.” There were inspections and everything. Like the military.
From gym class to sports teams, the locker room was the passageway to participation. That musty gym smell rising from the sweaty, wet gear of 50 or 60 athletes just became part of your daily life. And most lockers rooms were used by multiple sports teams. To get to our cross country lockers in high school we had to wade through the steaming mass of football players who were rank and defiled by hours of practice in the heat. We’d slip though without shirts on after practice and try to avoid rubbing against their heaving, pimpled bodies. But it wasn’t easy.
Then we’d retreat to the showers, where we sang songs by The Who and The Beatles, laughing at the fatigue rife without our bodies. .
And in college, the locker room became transporter like the one in Star Trek where people would be beamed from student to athlete and back again.
Beyond high school and college and into real life, the locker room turns into something of a social litmus test. At the XSport gym where I lift and swim, there are almost always 15-20 guys milling around getting changed. But some literally stand there and flex in the mirror, drinking protein shakes and glaring at their reflections.
One huge guy with massive rolls of fat on his body perches himself at a shelf with a mirror in the middle of the locker room and does who knows what for close to half an hour. It takes him forever to change. You have to walk past or around him to get anywhere in the locker room. Perhaps he should just paint his big body red, white and blue like a barber pole, and charge admission.
While working out years ago at the East Bank Club in Chicago, I found myself standing between TV star Robert Wagner and tennis great Arthur Ashe. Just people. But it’s a strange thing to be in a locker room with famous people. It just is.
So many locker rooms over the years. At posh golf clubs, I’ve watched Japanese executives lead their corporate proteges in a line. The pawns fall into formation and follow that social protocol without exception. Out to the golf course they go in a line.
At the finer golf clubs I’ve visited, it was always interesting to have my golf shoes shined spotless, and to have warm towels handed to me as if I were someone important in life. It always stuns me to be treated to luxury moments like that. I can’t help thinking the service people see through my lack of real expectation. I tip them the best I can. But I don’t travel in that brand of locker room very often.
Outside of town here in Batavia, there’s a golf club for MEN ONLY. It’s called Black Sheep and it thrives on the idea that men need a place to retreat without the imposition of women. The same guy that formed that club also mowed down a patch of woods at one of his other golf course locations because the city was trying to get him to preserve it. He didn’t like being told what to do so he sent in bulldozers overnight and knocked down all the trees.
One does not get the feeling he was a very good locker mate in high school. And to that end, I can recall a few locker room confrontations with teammates over the years. One objected to my being chosen for the opening lineup in a JV basketball game, so he tried to start a fight in the locker room. The idea seemed so foreign to me, and yet there’s a pecking order to everything in life. I stood my ground but almost got pummeled.
Recently White Sox baseball pitcher Chris Sale took offense to an ugly set of throwback uniforms the team was scheduled to wear. He hated the floppy collars on the old White Sox jerseys, so he went around the locker room with scissors and cut up the shirts. To me that’s funny. But he was fined and banned a day for team insubordination.
I love the scene in the movie Moneyball in which the Billy Bean character played by Brad Pitt walks down the hall after yet another loss by his high-risk baseball team and hears party music being played in the locker room. One of his more controversial players has a boom box playing while doing a bump-and-grind dance while the other players clap along and laugh.
Bean trashes the rooms with a baseball bat, smashing the boom box in the process. Then he points his finger to the sky when silence overcomes the room. “That’s the sound of losing,” he says.
And from then on, the team starts to make progress.
Our cross country coach in college had pre-workout talks in a classroom, but the locker room was still reserved for the athletes. I’ve never known any coaches that made a habit out of hanging around the locker room. I do recall a football coach walking through the college locker room and catching sight of my 140 lb. body. He turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you guys do anything.”
Not exactly a compliment. But again, when a coach is accustomed to the sight of multiple pounds of ballistic flesh, the sight of a runner strained thin through miles of training is likely a scary sight.
This morning after the swim workout I stood in the tiny locker room of the Regole Natatorium at Marmion High School and beheld the space of the locker room. I was amused comforted at the sight of worn out benches and dead gray locker doors. It’s a familiar environment, as welcoming as a local forest preserve with all its quirks and benches and rusted signs. Countless athletes and coaches have passed through that space, all with hopes and dreams and plans of victory. Many have succeeded, and many more have failed. But the locker room welcomes them all. And you gotta love that.