Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Locker Room: The Media Can't Have It Both Ways

I'm one of those guys who sits on the fence of political correctness.  I believe strongly in respecting the rights and needs of others.  But, there are plenty of gray areas where the cries of infringed-upon rights fly in the face of common sense.

The recent hullabaloo coming out of the Jets locker room is a testament to this.  The Mexican edition of Erin Andrews, Ines Sainz is an experienced sports reporter for TV Azteca, the second-largest network in Mexico.  And, last week, she entered the Jets locker room to do a story on Mexican-American quarterback Mark Sanchez.  When she exited the locker room, a spark slowly smoldered into a firestorm.  According to reports, there was borderline sexual harassment, and when Sainz herself initially brushed off the incident, many rallied around her Twitter message expressing discomfort and set out to relive the Lisa Olson flap from 1991.

Naturally, those on both sides have expressed arguments:  that Sainz dresses provocatively and uses her sexuality in her job; that the locker room is a workplace for both players and media, and such behavior would not be tolerated in any other workplace; that coaches threw footballs at her (actually, led receivers towards her) on the practice field.

In the end, the NFL found that the Jets locker room had an air of being "unprofessional", while also finding no instances of sexual harassment took place.  However, the Jets will be paying for "sensitivity training" for all 32 NFL teams to make sure their locker rooms remain a safe and comfortable place for all media members.

This is where I take exception...no, not to the training, or even to defend the Jets players who apparently started catcalling when Sainz entered the locker room.  I take exception to changing the climate of the locker room, period.

The locker room environment for football players is its own animal, like it or not.  It's the original sweat lodge, a place of male bonding in its crudest and loudest form.  From adolescence to the NFL and other pro sports, it is a throwback to a less civilized time, where rites of passage are common, a pecking order is established with words, gestures, and sometimes even with physical confrontation.  As the team becomes a collective unit with one goal in mind, grown men strip down to their most basic instincts.

It is a room that harkens back to the gladiators preparing under the Colosseum for battle, or soldiers in their bunkers preparing for engagement.  The locker room is a den of fun, mayhem, and emotion in its rawest form.  In the NFL, players bond as they fight one another for roster spots, then journey on through a season in which every game counts, every play is a battle story, and, in that oddly male ritual, catcalling and insulting one another is a sign of respect.

I remember sitting on the bench as a fifth grade student, watching the far more talented sixth graders tear their way through the Rhinelander basketball league.  We made it to the championship game, where Central beat us in the final seconds.  We did the obligatory line-up and gave the other team hand claps, and then I retired along with the rest of the team to the locker room.  Our sixth-grade team leader, Gary Gilman, walked into the locker room, slammed his fist against a locker, and shouted the F-word in deafening fashion. Being raised in a religious home, it was probably the first time I had actually heard the word used in practical form, but at that moment, we shared our mutual agony as Gary's shouts echoed off the walls.

I remember playing football in high school--okay, I didn't really play, per se (Coach Hoch listed my position in the program as "Left Out"), but I remember being a part of that locker room where practical jokes were played, young men shared stories of coon hunting, and we met daily to suit up to march, en masse, as a team of strong young men onto the field...whether it be a two-a-day practice in August or a game under the lights on a cold October Friday night.  Coach Hoch would sternly praise us, or light into us like we had no reason to breathe the same air he did.  He bonded us together using language not becoming of a teacher, but he wasn't a teacher then, nor were we students at that moment.  He was our general and we were his fanatical stormtroopers.

This is the nature of the locker room. You lose sense of the outside boundaries and constraints.   It is not politically correct, comfortable for outsiders, or professional in any sense of the word.  It is what it is.

And you don't have to like it.  You can dislike it just like you dislike any other situation that might not fit in with your personal set of values.  You can respect that those environments are important, if not greatly valued, by the people who belong to them.  Such it is with the NFL locker room.

So, you might ask, "I guess you're not in support of females in the locker room, right?"  Frankly, I'm not in support of any media in the locker room.  That's not their environment.  It's really not their place.

But, I understand fully why they want to be in there.  In the locker room, the men are free with their emotions, unfettered, and basking fresh from a glorious victory, or bemoaning a disappointing and bitter loss.  Any reporter wants that kind of quote.

What reporter would choose to wait an hour for a showered and dressed Clay Matthews to trudge up to the podium in the press room and give stock answers to questions, when they could catch him fresh off the field, with his eyes still lit up, animatedly recalling the story of how he zigged when the quarterback zagged and wrapped him up for a sack?

That's what the locker room gives the media...an opportunity to look at emotions unchecked, to see the real team and the players, not the "in front of the camera" PC statements.

This doesn't have as much to do with Ines Sainz as it does with any member of the media respecting what they walk into when they enter an NFL locker room, the private sanctuary of players all year...suddenly opened up to microphones at the most emotional times, after going weeks without having their domino games interrupted.

If a media person, man or woman, wants to enter the locker room, they know what they are getting, and it's what they want.  You can't have it both ways:  you can't demand unadulterated emotion and passion while still demanding that players maintain a "professional and respectful environment".  Sorry, media folks:  if you want professional and respectful, you need to wait in the press room for the players to come out one by one and give you professional, respectful answers to your questions.

I'm not making any excuses for any Jet players who may have crossed the line.  Obviously, any type of harassment that you would get reprimanded or arrested for outside of the locker room should be treated the same when you are inside the locker room.  But for any reporter to go into the locker room and feel uncomfortable in what is the natural environment of a locker room needs to wait outside.  Sure, the players get paid a ton of money and have responsibilities to represent the NFL and their team appropriately. But these are athletes who need that place to let those emotions ride high to the sky.

Let's hope that this "sensitivity training" being provided by the Jets to the rest of the league doesn't take away the environment that is so important to the players and the team.


PackersRS said...

In soccer, media members have been banned from the locker room since the 90's. In Europe, it's even more drastic. Players don't talk with reporters. Only when it's scheduled to do so.

I like the more casual environment of the NFL, with locker room interviews, where we can hear the coaches' speech, and I agree completely. It's singular. You don't enter the locker room wearing tight jeans and expect to be treated professionally. You don't dress in a mini skirt when you go to the court room and expect to be taken serious.

BigSnakeMan said...

Well put. If Saenz was under any confusion about what she was getting into, all she had to do was wastch HBO's 'Hard Knocks'.

And speaking of having it both ways, wasn't she also the one who proposed marriage to Tom Brady, while clad in a wedding dress? After pulling such a stunt, I'd say she forfeits any claim to professionalism.

PackersRS said...

BigSnakeMan, you're confusing your hispanic ladies... Though she also works for TV Azteca and is also named Ines.

Those crazy mexican reporters Ines salsa latino ladies...

BigSnakeMan said...

My bad, PRS; thanks for correcting me. That's what I get for listening to Dan Patrick.

Mike said...

This is an old response but I just read this article. As a participant in 3 Bell games on the Antigo side, I an assure you the atmosphere in our locker room was no more hospitable to any "outsiders" as yours. Thanks for the memories.