One of my first days covering the Eagles in 2003, a rookie offensive lineman asked me how I liked seeing all the naked men in the locker room, although he made a much cruder reference to his own full-frontal nudity. A couple of his teammates laughed, but I didn't. I was 32, newly married, and fresh off three seasons covering the 76ers.
Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Brian Dawkins, and Donovan McNabb, all veteran leaders on a team that was brimming with high expectations, were nearby. I knew none of them but of course knew of all of them. So I said, loud enough for everyone to hear: "If I wanted to see [that crude reference], I'd still be covering the Sixers."
The four vets immediately ripped into the rookie. Problem solved.
Being a woman in professional sports, be it in the media or in the front office, is challenging. It's a world populated by athletes who are in their 20s and 30s, who have been pampered their entire lives and who get paid exorbitant amounts of money to be aggressive. It is not for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart.
And things happen like what happened to Ines Sainz.
In case you've been unplugged for six days, Sainz was at the New York Jets practice facility on Saturday to interview quarterback Mark Sanchez. On the practice field, an assistant coach appeared to deliberately throw the ball to players who were near Sainz. Later in the locker room, a few players made catcalls directed at Sainz, who said on Twitter that she was "dying of embarrassment" and "would like to cover my ears."
It was inappropriate, bad behavior. That fact is not up for debate. There is never a scenario, no matter the workplace, where it is acceptable to harass a woman or make her feel uncomfortable while she is simply trying to do her job.
But Sainz, a television "reporter" from Mexico's TV Azteca, is not without fault here. And frankly, she brought the Jets' behavior on herself.
Sainz works for a Mexican television network that seems more than happy to promote her as a sex symbol and not a journalist. Google "Ines Sainz" and you can find Ines Sainz in bathing suits and provocative evening wear. She's a celebrity, a former Miss Spain, and clearly she has used her sex appeal to propel her career. Being provocative might even be a job requirement. Certainly, there could be cultural differences at play here.
Google "Ines Sainz" and you'll also find a photograph of her sitting on the shoulders of two Indianapolis Colts players during Super Bowl media day. I remember seeing her there. There was a swarm of people around her, and they were all laughing and joking about this woman who was causing such a stir.
For a real sports reporter, that's unconscionable. Word travels fast.
You also don't walk into an NFL locker room wearing jeans that leave little to the imagination and a blouse that reveals your substantial cleavage. You don't have to dress ultra-conservatively, but you have to be smart. If you want to be treated like a girl at a bar, dress like a girl at a bar. If you want to be treated professionally and without incident, cover up.
To be a real, professional female sports journalist in this country, you must know: Athletes can be pigs. They say things. You have to have a thick skin and be prepared to fire back at them.
Second of all, if you want to be treated like a professional, you have to dress like a professional. That means no super-short skirts like the one Sainz wore on the Today show on Tuesday. No cleavage-revealing blouses. No short-shorts.
Personally, I've sworn off dresses and skirts, too.
Very important point: Don't flirt. Don't flip your hair. Don't tilt your head to the side. Don't lean in too closely. Don't touch a player's arm or his shoulder or his knee. You are there to get information, not to get a date.
Know your stuff. Work hard. Read exhaustively. Ask good questions. Don't make mistakes. You have to be twice as good as the men just to be in the game.
Do all of that, and you'll still probably have a problem. It's the nature of the beast.
The Association of Women in Sports Media, a wonderful organization that helped me get my start out of college as a reporter at Sports Illustrated, jumped to Sainz's defense this week, and rightfully so. But it needs to educate the new crop of women sports reporters about how to be professional and how not to act, because it's not as if there's a class in college about it. You have to learn on the fly, and it's easy to fail.
The NFL isn't some out-of-control organization, but given that it is populated by egotistic, pampered 20- and 30-year-olds making inordinate amounts of money, things are going to happen. For females in the locker room, there is a way to limit the collateral damage if you are so inclined.
Or, there's a way to get on Dancing With the Stars. It's a choice. I should know.