Friday, September 17, 2010

*Updated w/information on locker room access* Media in the locker rooms -- we should be in there

The issue of the media and locker rooms has come up again this week because of the behavior of some New York Jets last week when a female reporter from a Mexican TV network showed up for an interview with Mark Sanchez dressed, according to many who were there, ‘provocatively.’

I put that word in quotes because it is subjective. Her explanation—and I really don’t remember her name and it isn’t especially germane to what I’m writing here so I’m not going to stop and look it up—was that she wanted to look nice for her viewers. Look, let’s be honest here: most (not all) TV reporters—male and female—are hired at least to some degree based on their looks. You can get away with NOT looking like a model if you are an ex-athlete, an ex-politician or an expert.

It is a fact of life in sports that this is more true for women than for men. Again, there are exceptions here and there, but most female sideline reporters and sports anchors could turn to swimsuit modeling if the sports thing didn’t work out. They know it, the people who hire them know it and the viewers know it. The woman in question in the Jets incident bills herself as, “the hottest sports TV anchor in Mexico,” or words to that affect and apparently shows up at The Super Bowl each year doing things like measuring the biceps of players at media day. Not exactly out of the Mike Wallace school of broadcasting.

When I was a young reporter at The Washington Post, Howard Simons, then the managing editor, asked me once why I wore blue jeans a lot of the time. I told him—and I wasn’t joking—that when dealing with young athletes, especially being young at the time myself, I thought I came across as less threatening if I dressed casually. I never wore torn jeans and I never wore a T-shirt. Simons found that answer acceptable.

Once, when I was still working as a police reporter, I had to find a guy who had been involved in a string of murders that involved The Prince George’s County police. He lived in Baltimore and I knocked on his door and told him why I needed to talk to him. I got him to agree to go out for something to eat so we could talk. He ended up agreeing to the interview and became a key source on the story. Much later he said to me, “that first day, when you showed up, you were wearing jeans and sneakers. I figured you couldn’t be too much of a scammer if you dressed like that.”

Casual is one thing, provocative is another. During that same period, The Post hired a summer intern who, again, could have become a model if she’d wanted to. For all I know she DID become a model. She was also assigned to the police reporting and, within days of her arrival, there was, shall we say, ‘buzz,’ about the new reporter on the beat.

One afternoon she walked into the newsroom wearing a sundress that just about brought the newsroom to a halt. Milton Coleman, who was the city editor at the time, walked over to her desk.

“What are you up to today?” he asked.

“Going to police headquarters,” she answered.

“Not dressed like that you’re not,” he said. “You represent The Washington Post. Go home and change.”

Look, it’s a FACT that in jock world being an attractive woman can be an advantage. Actually it’s a fact that in the world being attractive is an advantage—period. But it is even more true in a male-dominated world where it is almost impossible for a good-looking woman to not be noticed—especially when they dress to make sure they ARE noticed.

As recently as this past June, on the night Stephen Strasburg made his Major League debut, my colleague Barry Svrluga was trying to grab a few minutes with Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez before the game because he had an early deadline. Rodriguez is, by nature, very accommodating. That day was hectic though: he was coming off the Disabled List, he needed some treatment AND he was catching baseball’s newest phenom.

“I just don’t think I have any time,” he told Svrluga, who understood.

A few minutes later, Svrluga was standing outside the dugout when he saw Rodriguez doing an on-camera interview with a very attractive TV reporter. We looked at one another and laughed.

“You had no chance,” I said. “Complete mismatch.”

“Tell me about it,” he answered.

Of course the Jets incident has again raised the entire issue of media access to the locker room. I am, of course, an extremely biased source here because I KNOW from years of experience that I do my job a lot better when I can stand at a guy’s locker and talk to him than when I have to sit in an interview room and listen to him talk about giving 110 percent and stepping up in answer to some inane question asked by someone looking for a soundbite.

Here’s what you do in a locker room: You wait for the TV guys to ask their inane questions and hope you don’t get hit in the head by a camera. Then, when some space clears, you walk up and, if it is someone you know, you quietly ask the questions you’d like answered. Or, if it is someone you don’t know, you shake hands with them, look them in the eye to establish some kind of contact with them and ask your questions. (By the way, you ALMOST never do this before they’ve had a chance to put on some kind of clothing; trust me, the only ones who have less interest in that happening than the players are the reporters).

Are you guaranteed to get good answers in that situation? No. Some guys are better than others—which is why some are called, ‘go to,’ guys in a locker room because you know to go to them for good answers. But your chances of getting a good answer there are about 100 times better than in the antiseptic, stilted atmosphere of an interview room.

Of course the public doesn’t really get that anymore than it gets the fact that it isn’t always ‘greedy players,’ who are responsible for work stoppages. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone screaming about greedy players going on strike when in fact it was greedy owners locking them out, I could be a rich, greedy owner myself.

That said, I understand why many fans would see the media going into the locker room as some kind of invasion of the players privacy. It’s really not. Part of the job of being a professional athlete is talking to the public—the public that makes them rich, that buys the products they endorse—and the way they do that is through the media.

Most athletes accept dealing with the media in the locker room as part of the job—especially when they are accustomed to it. What’s more if they don’t want to talk to the media for some reason, there are off-limits places where they can hide out; something they often do. There’s also this: Although it may not appear that way, establishing relationships with the media—which often happen through locker room contact—is good for the athlete. As they grow more comfortable with the media, they come across better to the public. That can only help them in a dozen different ways.

That said, all of us who do go into locker room have a responsibility to act professionally. About 99 percent of the time that happens and postgame locker room interviews are a routine part of the job for both athletes and reporters. Unfortunately, especially in today’s world, the one percent of the time that isn’t the case, it becomes news and, inevitably, some people say, ‘what are they doing in there in the first place.’

We should be in there. But when we are, we should be like good officials: not noticed by the public, except if by some chance while reading a good story, they stop to think, ‘gee that guy really did a good job getting those quotes.’ There’s no need for the reader to do that but being in the locker room makes it possible for all of us to try to get those quotes. Unless you’d prefer hearing again how your team ‘stepped up,’ or ‘gave 110 percent.’


******

I normally only respond to posters every few days and usually try to answer a few at once. That said, I feel the need to respond right away to today's post from JJ because he is quite misinformed on locker room access, so I'm guessing many others are too.

As a matter of fact, many locker rooms are open before games. Baseball clubhouses are always open from three-and-one-half hours prior to the game until an hour prior to the game and most baseball writers do, I'd say 80 percent of their reporting work--both there and in the dugout--during that time. (Note my anecdote about Barry Svrluga, Pudge Rodriguez and the female TV reporter--who was NOT Lindsay Czarniak BTW). NBA locker rooms are open too and, only recently did the NHL take away total pre-game access; now if you want a player, you request him--the coach is almost always available. The exception in team sports is the NFL. My guess is the reason for that is that the fear level prior to a game in there is so high--and I've witnessed it so I know this is true--that guys wouldn't be able to get much done even if they did have access. As for golf, the locker room is ALWAYS open to the media as is the practice tee and the putting green. Most writers are savvy enough to know you don't try to talk to anyone at length just before they tee it up, but the locker room before they go out to warm-up? Routine--I do it all the time because JJ is right, that's a great time to get a feel for a player's emotions. For the record, Dustin Johnson DID stand in front of his locker and talk after the PGA--you can probably go to YouTube and see the video. At Winged Foot in 2006 after his 18th hole meltdown, Phil Mickelson spoke to the media in the 'flash area,' right behind the 18th green and then AGAIN in the locker room. In fact, this past year when he withdrew from The Players Championship during his Sunday round, Tiger Woods spoke to several reporters in the locker room before going to The Tour's fitness trailer for treatment on his neck.

While I'm at it, in response to Ed O's question: You're right, standards are totally different in Europe. Not only do journalists routinely bet on the events they cover, they tell their readers who they've bet on and--frequently--will start screaming at the TV if the guy they've bet on lets them down. They also routinely drink on the job--I'm not saying this as a putdown, it's just true. When I covered tennis, most of the media would drink a bottle of wine with lunch in Paris (can't really blame them can you?) and would be at the bar during the first break of any kind in the afternoon at Wimbledon. Here, that sort of thing could be a firing offense. There, it's routine. One last thing: the Mexican TV reporter was apparently harassed on the field but also in the locker room when she went in there to do her interview with Mark Sanchez...

13 comments:

Ed O. said...

John,

I'm wondering if part of the issue with the current debate is different journalistic ethics in different countries. The Mexican reporter is from a country with, what seems to me, different standards. Her network flaunts her as "the most beautiful sports reporter in the world", or whatever. Mexican TV tends to be more risque than American. Obviously, her outfit and demeanor are considered acceptable in Mexico when she reports on soccer, etc... That said, if she is going to an NFL locker room she needs to know the standards and norms of where she will be working.
I notice differences in journalistic ethcis as well in Europe (alhtough not as much regarding sex appeal). I follow English soccer as much as I follow the NFL. Reading writeups online, or listening to podcasts and radio show, reporters there all the time discuss teams that they are a fan of, or wagers they have made on games. This would be equivalent to you and Tony openly discussing on the radio how much money you put on the Redskins this weekend, or Svrluga writing about how he thought he got a good deal putting $50 on Baltimore to win the Super Bowl at 10-1 (I made those odds up by the way, don't know if they're true).
From your time working internationally, do you have any insights into how different journalistic ethics vary by country?

Anonymous said...

The real reason locker rooms should be closed the media is because the players have a right to privacy while showering and dressing. If their employers and commissioners put them in a situation that is sexually uncomfortable and demeaning by law it is sexual harrssment.

Mr. X said...

Lindsay Czarniak big-timed Svrluga? That hussy!

Anonymous said...

I realize that having members of the press in locker rooms is settled protocol, even having women in men's locker rooms (or men in womens's). I realize everyone has pretty much gotten used to the idea.

That said, I would have thought that the locker room is a place where teamates can celebrate together, or cry together. A place where "boys can be boys" (or girls can be girls) without fear of outside reporting. I think there is an important place for that.

It also seems to me that an athlete's adreneline is still high, their emotions still up, and they are more likely to be candid about what went on out there. Maybe too much so.

Does anything "off the record" said in there, or go on in there?

Finally John, I appreciate your condor in admitting your bias up front. I would expect media people to be in favor or access to locker rooms. You're the first that I've seen to come out and admit that bias.

cd1515 said...

how has this become a debate about locker room access?
what happened to this woman... didn't it happen out on the practice field?

JJ said...

I respectfully disagree John. Are you allowed in locker rooms before games? If not, why doesn't the press make a big issue about that? Isn't talking to players before the game as important as afterward? My thoughts are the players do their jobs on the field. They should be accessable there after games and practices. If the locker room is sacred before games, then it should be afterward. There is as much news to gather before as there is after.

Are reporters allowed in either PGA or ATP locker rooms? As an example, if the media can stand in front of Bill Buckner's locker after game 6 of the 1986 World Series, why not in front of Dustin Johnson's locker after he fires 80 in the United States Open on Sunday?

Dana King said...

What surprised me most was, I thought this business about having women in the locker room had been settled thirty years ago. It amazed me to see it come up again.

Erik J. Barzeski said...

JJ - Yes, reporters are allowed in PGA (and PGA Tour) locker rooms.

Anonymous said...

In one way, all this talk is good to continue to educate folks on proper ethics, as well as teach the masses on what exactly goes on behind the scenes. From the questions, and from my own lack of knowledge, I can see that the understanding of the world of the media-athlete relationship is still an unknown.

Its pretty amazing that in the sports (and politic) world we live in there is an unknown aspect, but there seems to be.

JJ said...

John,

Thanks, I was in the wrong. That you took time to respond so quickly, and with such class is much appreciated. Thank you for the detail explanation.


JJ

Anonymous said...

We might as well have Lyndie England for a football comissioner ar Rodger Goodell. He has no respect for male conscience either.

Tim said...

3 weeks into the season, seems that the football pundits picked the wrong service academy to have a great team - Air Force with a big win vs. BYU, and following it up with a 3 pt loss at Oklahoma. Are they going to win the Commander-in-Chief trophy this year?

omnivore said...

"You can get away with NOT looking like a model if you are an ex-athlete, an ex-politician or an expert"

I forget. Which one are you Mr. Navy Color Man?

(I kid, by the way.)