Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Issue of women in locker room crops up ... again

September 25, 2010

If I could add the wasted time I spent waiting outside locker rooms with the wasted time encountered once inside, I might be able to get three or four years of my life back.

It is surely something I don’t miss from my days as a daily scribe, but it was a fundamental part of the sportswriting regimen.

You watch the practice or game, then barge into the midst of sweaty, tired men in varying stages of undress—as well as in varying moods—to solicit their thoughts about what had just occurred.

Their utterances—“quotes” in the jargon of journalism—were considered valued pearls to be interspersed in the story for the pleasure of the reader.

When I was a beat reporter, quotes were deemed essential because inquiring minds surely wanted to know about the winning play, the decision to go for it, the emotions felt, etc., etc.

Yes, the responses most often tilted more toward mundane than illuminating. But you went with them, anyway because, again, that was the expectation.

Then, later on, as a columnist, quotes became tools to help prove whatever point I was trying to make.

Of course, really gifted writers—the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times and our own Bob Collins of The Indianapolis Star come to mind—rarely ventured into locker rooms because they hardly used quotes.

I once asked Collins why.

“I don’t need someone to tell me what I saw,” he replied.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, it’s the relentless pursuit of quotes that, in many cases, makes venturing into locker rooms an occupational necessity—and potential hazard—for the sports journalist.

And occasionally things veer off course, as they did recently when the Mexican Azteca TV female sportscaster Ines Sainz entered the locker room of the New York Jets and later claimed she encountered an environment more appreciative of her physical assets than of her pursuit of quotes from quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Jets have since been reprimanded and their owner has apologized personally.

That Sainz—with a track record of dressing provocatively and asking inane questions—became the focus of a renewed public conversation about the place of women in men’s locker rooms did a disservice to the female sportswriting and sportscasting pioneers who first demanded equal access in pursuit of their jobs, then marched into those sanctums and carried out their duties with professionalism.

One of those was former Channel 8 sports anchor Kimberly Harms, whose TV career included covering pro teams in Detroit, Houston and Indianapolis.

“I always viewed walking into a locker room the same as being invited into someone’s home,” said Harms, who now works in media relations with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. “You respect their privacy and rules.

“In the beginning, there were no other women in the locker room, so I made sure the athletes knew I was there to do my job and talk about the game. Athletes are very perceptive. … They know who’s trying to be sensationalist in their reporting or their dress. In fact, I had athletes apologize to me if they thought their colleagues were pushing the wrong buttons. It comes down to mutual respect.

“If anyone objected, I always said to them, ‘Just as you are competitive on the field, I have to be competitive in my job.’”

Again, it’s an accepted practice now, which is why the Sainz incident caught everyone by surprise. Then again, she was dealing with the Jets, who have turned into a reality show. And Sainz’s attire was more suited for a trip to a singles bar than a locker room, though that’s not an excuse for the Jets’ actions.

Harms said she did encounter Sainz types who “dressed provocatively and asked softball questions all the time. That was as frustrating for me as I’m sure it was for athletes. I worked hard to understand the game and an individual athlete’s nuances. I wanted to provide winning coverage to let people see inside the game. Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to draw attention.”

Like yours truly back in the day, all Harms wanted were quotes and—for better or worse—locker rooms are where you have to go to get them.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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