September 15, 2010

Jets, Sainz situation represents progress, however unsatisfying

It’s not exactly news when some NFL players act like lowlifes. It’s certainly not news to any woman who works as a sports reporter, which includes my wife. Most are perfectly prepared to deal with frat boy behavior on the job. So when members of the New York Jets made inappropriate comments to Ines Sainz, a reporter for TV Azteca in Mexico, it became a news story largely because pictures of Sainz play well in today’s media environment. It’s no secret many foreign television networks hire women as eye candy, expect them to do less-than-serious stories while dressed, by professional journalism standards, provocatively. 

So the Jets situation made for an unsatisfying ethical tale.

On one level, it represented progress. The official response from the Jets and the NFL was swift and unequivocal: women reporters are to be treated professionally. The juvenile behavior is no longer winked at or embraced, as it was in 1990 when a group of New England Patriots harassed Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson. Patriots owner Victor Kiam led the charge, blaming her for his players’ actions while calling her a "classic bitch." The atmosphere was so toxic for Olson, she left to work in Australia for several years.

That stuff is pretty rare these days, especially in New York, which leads the universe in women reporters — including Olson, who lives in New York and writes for Both NFL teams here have had multiple women beat writers and women are a daily presence covering games and practices. Those women, including my wife, Lynn Zinser, a reporter for the New York Times who covered the Giants for several seasons, do not get treated to catcalls and degrading behavior. Why? Because they act like professional journalists and players respond in kind.

Most women in this business learned long ago that they can largely control how respectfully they are treated by how they conduct themselves. Former Women’s Sports Foundation president Donna Lopiano once gave a speech to the Association of Women in Sports Media that was chock full of advice, including: “If you don’t want to be treated like sex object, don’t dress like one.” It works. My wife, by and large, has been treated with respect by athletes, and she started in the business 24 years ago, when the whole woman-in-the-locker-room thing was still open for debate.

The women pioneers who paved the way for her and others did the hard work of demanding equal access to athletes and faced the ugliness that often accompanied equal locker room access in those days. Those who followed them through those doors are grateful for those who pried them open. And now they are in the uncomfortable position of going to bat for Sainz, who runs contrary to everything they try to be as professionals.

Yet, the principle stands. Women who are credentialed as media should be treated with decency and respect, no matter how they are dressed or how frivolous their questions. NFL players are paid handsomely to do a job that includes dealing with the media, even when the media is dressed in skin-tight jeans. It’s not a lot to ask that they squelch their childish impulses and act like adults, and professionals.

Ideally, all credentialed journalists would follow that line of thinking as well. But Mexican television networks have different ideas about appealing to their audience, which is a topic for another day. 

At least the NFL establishment is getting this right. So consider it progress.

NFL reminds clubs of media policy {The Associated Press}

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