Women in locker rooms: a controversy only to those uninvolved

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 10:30 PM

A locker room is not the Lux Lounge, and it's not Clinton Portis's private den, either. It's a weird hybrid room, a public space where private things happen, crowded and stinking, littered with dirty adhesive tape that sticks to your shoes, and packed with bodies, starting with the un-deodorized athletes in various states of dress and undress, some of them picking their feet or putting salve on their back acne, but also including equipment managers collecting sweat-soaked laundry, and TV anchors and radio announcers jostling each other.

Anyone who argues that women reporters don't belong in a locker room because they might see something private had better kick the cameras and microphones out first.

Personally, I don't interview naked men. That's just my policy; I wait for them to put on pants or a towel. So I can't really speak to Portis's comments because I've never been confronted by "53 men's packages." Nor have I ever had a problem in a locker room, which I attribute to the gentlemanly qualities of the men in them, and my own tact. And I'm not sure that TV Azteca reporter Ines Sainz had a real problem with the New York Jets, either. She seems to have received ruder treatment from Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann.

The other day Sainz went out to the Jets' facility to interview quarterback Mark Sanchez, and while she was there, some Jets seem to have acted 14 years old and lost it, because she is a former Miss Universe contestant and she wears tight jeans (she's also a married mother of three with a masters degree). None of the comments were overtly rude, but they were inappropriate and unprofessional, and another journalist complained on her behalf. Sainz herself told TV Azteca she did not feel insulted, or harassed.

"It was definitely a joking tone, very amicable," she said. "I wasn't offended."

Jets owner Woody Johnson has apologized for his team's juvenile conduct. It should have ended there.

But it didn't, mainly because everybody else started losing it, too. Limbaugh attacked Sainz for her jeans and cleavage, calling her "boobalicious;" Glenn Beck suggested she wanted the publicity, an impression Sainz did nothing to discourage by going on every talk show in creation; a women's media group suggested the Jets undergo "sensitivity training;" and then Portis had to get into it, suggesting women reporters can't go into locker rooms without fainting from lust.

"You put a woman and you give her a choice of 53 athletes, somebody got to be appealing to her," he said. "You know, somebody got to spark her interest, or she's gonna want somebody."

So now we're locked into an interminable debate about appropriate professional conduct for women. Despite the fact that this all started with a handful of guys acting unprofessionally.

Let's dispense with the dumbest part of this whole controversy, the question of what Sainz was wearing. She had on jeans and a collared white shirt, but I don't care if it was Doctor Dentons and a nose ring. It's her prerogative to wear what she wants, and the only people entitled to judge its professional appropriateness are her bosses at TV Azteca, who apparently are fine with it. And if she dresses for attention, what of it? Women have been using dress as a form of communication since Queen Elizabeth I of England first put on pearls.

Contrary to Olbermann's speechifying, one woman's neckline doesn't define all women in the business, much less "undermine" them. If I had to put a word to that assertion, I'd call it sexist.

The more interesting and less easy part of the discussion concerns the locker room. Factually, the issue is simple: It's not a question of whether women belong in locker rooms. It's the law. Equal access in the workplace was mandated in 1979 by a federal judge. But that doesn't make it comfortable for anyone.

If a locker room is a workplace, it's an inherently awkward one socially. Portis, for all of his silliness, did get at something real in his remarks, the central uneasiness of player-media relations in the locker room environment. In what other profession does one set of people do business with another while they're partially or wholly unclothed? He's right: It's unnatural. But that's not just about women.

It's the job of the media to get inside a player's character and thoughts, to critique and document a team's progress and flaws, and to pass that knowledge on as accurately as possible to the public. It's vital to engage athletes in the locker room, where they experience their tempers and celebrations. It's an exposing situation - for everybody.

But that's true whether we're talking about women covering the NFL, or men covering the WNBA (yes, they go into female locker rooms), or men covering other men. It requires a high level of professionalism - from everyone.

Given the nature of the job, it's actually surprising there aren't more tensions between reporters and athletes. It's a testament to the professionalism on both sides that we get along as well as we do. The vast majority of men in locker rooms are extremely polite, and that includes Portis, whom I've never known to be anything but respectful. (To be honest, the worst sexists I ever met were a couple of editors in suits at Sports Illustrated, not half-clothed players.)

There have been just a handful of serious incidents of sexual harassment in locker rooms that I can think of in the past 25 years, the most notorious in 1990 when Zeke Mowatt of the New England Patriots hurled vulgarities at Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson after she had written some critical pieces.

Almost invariably, the debate about women in the locker room is carried on most fiercely by outsiders - from the fans who harassed Olson to the commentators who have opined on Sainz' wardrobe.

What all the outsiders ignore whenever the locker room controversy awakens, as it does every 10 years or so, is that male athletes and female reporters have thousands upon thousands of amiable professional dealings each week, without incident. They talk; they interview. They argue; they swap jokes, and trade insights. It's uncomfortable at times, sure. But it's not that big a deal. All it takes is a little courtesy, a little humor, and some terry cloth.

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