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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Journalist dealt with harassment, opened doors for other women

Lisa Nehus Saxon at Husky Stadium circa 1995.

Lisa Nehus Saxon at Husky Stadium circa 1995. Photo Credit: Scott Howard-Cooper

It was a week to celebrate pioneers in the sports world. Jason Collins announced his retirement from the NBA on Thursday, a little less than two years after revealing in a Sports Illustrated cover story that he is gay. And on Friday, GQ magazine announced that Michael Sam, the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team, had been named one of its men of the year.

The bravery that Collins and Sam showed will make it easier for everyone who follows in their path. Not all sports pioneers, however, wind up gracing the cover of a national magazine or getting an ovation at a Nets game.

Some, like former sportswriter Lisa Saxon, end up teaching high school journalism in Pacific Palisades, California, watching from the sideline as women make additional inroads into the profession she had to kick her way into nearly 30 years ago.

Saxon, 55, made headlines this past week when Vice Sports detailed how she had been harassed by Reggie Jackson in the 1980s when she covered the Angels for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Jackson, Saxon said, screamed at her regularly. Depending on his mood, she said he would tell her she was ugly, suggest she have sex with him, criticize her clothing and refuse to do interviews with his pants on.

Jackson has not commented publicly on the Vice story and did not return Newsday's calls for comment.

"Reggie was a bully," Saxon said. "He'd figure out who was the weakest person in the room and try to destroy them. I saw him do it to young players. And I saw him try to do it to me.''

Saxon refused to let him, which is one reason I can write this column today. If it weren't for Saxon and a handful of other women reporters who covered baseball in the mid-'80s, there would be no Rachel Nichols, no Erin Andrews, no Jemele Hill.

I already knew some of Saxon's story, having covered high school sports for the L.A. Daily News when she was covering the Angels. But until I read the story in Vice and then called her this past week, I did not know the extent of the abuse.

"The lowest point was after a game in 1985," she said. "I was interviewing someone else and [Jackson] came over and told me, 'You have to go lie under the team bus so I can have it run over you. I hate you.' . . . I went back to my hotel that night and cried myself to sleep.''

The 1980s were a difficult time for women in sports. By court order, women won the right to equal access to the locker room in 1978, but it was left up to individual reporters to enforce on a game-by-game basis.

The abuse Saxon endured is unfathomable today. She said a coach once grabbed her breast, players passed gas on her and a player walked up behind her in the clubhouse and put both of his hands on her rear end.

Saxon eventually got even with Jackson, she said, by refusing to cast her vote for him in the Hall of Fame balloting.

Saxon said the only time she interacted with Jackson when he wasn't yelling at her or calling her a name occurred several years after she left the beat and he had left the Angels. She was back in Anaheim working on a story and ran into Jackson, who offered up what he might have thought was an apology. Said Jackson, referring to himself in the third person, "Reggie doesn't do those things. Reggie never did those things. But if he did, Reggie apologizes."

Saxon left the conversation perplexed. She said Angels coach Bobby Knoop explained that Jackson was on the Hall of Fame ballot and likely wanted her vote.

"I turned on my heels and went back into the clubhouse and I said, 'Hey Reggie, I finally figured out why you wanted to talk to me. The answer is: Yes, I have a Hall of Fame vote. And no, you're not getting it. I hope this clears everything up.' "

Saxon also said many athletes treated her professionally. Among them were Joe Torre, who worked the Angels broadcasts, Terry Collins, Tommy John, John Candelaria and Gary Sheffield, though there were many more.

"Women came into the workplace but didn't come in with a user's manual," Saxon said. "No one knew what to do with us because there hadn't been rules established. I don't think baseball was ready for me in 1983.''

Saxon, 23 years old when she took over the Angels beat, believes she suppressed a lot that was happening to her because she did not want to be the story. She covered the Angels for four seasons and the Dodgers for one before moving on to the Los Angeles Raiders and college sports.

In 1989, she said, she was having trouble concentrating and a doctor diagnosed her with "combat fatigue." She eventually left journalism, got her teaching credential and now teaches at the Palisades Charter High School, where she also is the adviser for the school magazine.

Saxon loves teaching, and until she gave an interview to a local reporter working for Vice Sports, she hadn't thought much about her years covering sports. She admits to having mixed feelings of pride and jealousy when she sees the growing number of women reporters covering every sport.

"Sometimes I get upset and wonder what could I have accomplished if I didn't have to spend all my time on something like basic access," she said. "But then I realize how lucky I was. I got to cover baseball. I became the person I am today because I had to learn how to stand up to Reggie Jackson and call him a fraud. I'm glad I was one of the first because I was tough enough to do it."

I'm glad, too.

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