Walking into a locker room full of professional male athletes, whether they have just stepped off the field, the court or the ice, can be intimidating to a female reporter. The air stings with fresh sweat and steam. The showers are running full blast, and guys who've spent all day competing are competing yet again to get to them — without being hounded for an interview.
Guys twice your size are slipping off their equipment, walking around naked and toweling off after a quick shower, ready to celebrate or sulk about their day on the job. But in the end, as a reporter, you should be focusing on only one thing: your story.
What happened between Ines Sainz and the New York Jets during the opening weekend of football season is unfortunate. But the overblown media circus has the potential not just to hurt the reputation of the National Football League and possibly Sainz, but female sports reporters as a whole. The next thing you know, women will be banned from locker rooms across the board, making it even more difficult to tell the story and depleting the already small pool of female reporters.
I first heard about the Sainz incident as the Tennessee Titans were in the process of beating the Oakland Raiders. While the female reporter sitting next to me expressed her frustration and disappointment about what happened, I have to admit that it wasn't that much of a shock to me.
These are football players. Guys that have spent their entire lives advancing their careers and surviving in the NFL. They beat themselves up every Sunday, and each weekend they grow closer to their teammates. In many ways, being on a team is like the bubble world of a fraternity. Their head is in the game, and sometimes, unfortunately, they forget that at this level it's more than just a game — it's a job.
I am not excusing the Jets' behavior. They're professionals and they know better. But throughout her career, Sainz has sought to become part of the story instead of simply reporting it, and that's even without the controversial outfits. She has taken sports reporting down a level, flirting with athletes for angles but reviving the kind of stereotypes women reporters have worked to shut down.
As a reporter, I'm there to represent the eyes and ears of fans who cannot go into that locker room with me. That doesn't mean touching the players and asking how big their biceps are, as Sainz has in the past. It means reporting what happened before, during and after the game, while respecting professional boundaries.
After hearing bits and pieces of Sainz's experience, I stepped on the sidelines at LP Field for the first time, ready to follow the Titans into their locker room. To be honest, I was more nervous about asking the right questions than I was about anyone harassing me.
And I have to say, it wasn't the least bit uncomfortable. Sure, some guys were naked or only had a towel around their waists. But all I was focusing on was finding the players I was prepared to interview. And even though I was one of only two female reporters, no one even took a second glance at me.
Even if I had been thrown inappropriate comments, I would have held my head high and moved on to the next guy. Because that's what you have to do when females, however unfairly, still have to prove they can do this job. You have to be ready for any and all of it — the ones that question if you know what you're talking about, the male chauvinists that don't think you should be there, the sly comments that put you down simply because you're female.
Even now, women have to prove that they are more than just cheerleaders on the sidelines — that they know the game as well as the male reporter sitting next to them. Unfortunately, players throughout the league are now saying they don't want women in the locker room. Others are saying they don't want any media — male or female — to come in.
If that happens, the number of stories lost will be endless. How else do you capture that moment when a team just won the OT game that pushed them into a playoff spot? Or the reaction on their faces when they know they blew it? Last week's Scene story captured a moment between Steve McNair's kids and Vince Young that I wouldn't have been able to share if I'd been shut out. The ability of sports journalists will be severely limited if the Sainz incident takes away their access.
Luckily, down here in Tennessee, the Titans are respectful of female reporters. Whether Bo Scaife, Ahmard Hall or Young were half-dressed or fully clothed, they treated me like any other reporter in that locker room, ready to answer any question and making sure nothing about the situation felt awkward.
And there's no reason it should. In the end, I'm just here to write headlines, not make them.