Commentary

The Jets, Ines Sainz and sharing blame

Education for everyone involved could be the best way to address this controversy

Originally Published: September 14, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

This story has been corrected. Read below

I don't know Ines Sainz, but I've seen enough of her work to think that the New York Jets might not be the only ones responsible for the firestorm that has become almost as big a deal as their season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night.

As the featured team in HBO's "Hard Knocks" series, the Jets already have been in the headlines for their mouthiness. But the controversy about their alleged behavior toward Sainz could be far more serious than their television trash-talking.

[+] EnlargeInez Sainz
Roberto Schmidt/Getty ImagesInes Sainz has been interviewing players at the Super Bowl for a number of years. Here, she talks with the Bears' Copeland Bryan in January 2007.

Sainz, a reporter for TV Azteca in Mexico, said she was "uncomfortable" about the way she was treated at Saturday's Jets practice, where she was seeking to interview franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez. Instead of an interview with Sanchez, Sainz said she was subjected to idiotic -- my word, not hers -- behavior by the Jets' players and coaches.

According to reports, Jets secondary coach Dennis Thurman launched passes in Sainz's direction so that the players could get close to her. And once Sainz was in the locker room, the players allegedly ogled her, and some used inappropriate language.

The experience prompted Sainz to tweet that she was "dying of embarrassment." On NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday, though, she downplayed some of her initial reaction.

"I must say that I don't hear anything that is in a sexual way," Sainz told "Today" host Meredith Vieira. "I'm not the one who say the charge or try to involve all of the team in this situation."

The NFL has launched an investigation, and Jets owner Woody Johnson personally called Sainz to apologize.

That, in itself, is tremendous progress. It's taken a long time for women to be taken seriously in sports media. It was 20 years ago this week that Lisa Olson, currently a sports columnist for AOL Fanhouse, was subjected to humiliating treatment by members of the New England Patriots in their locker room, an incident that many acknowledge as a turning point for female media members in their struggle to gain respect in the sports industry. At the time, many dismissed Olson's claims of harassment, and she received an avalanche of public scorn.

But at the risk of sounding insensitive to Sainz, I would never group her situation with the Jets with Olson's treatment by the Pats. I'm having a hard time feeling sympathetic for someone who at times carries herself in a manner that insults some women in this business.

At the Super Bowl XLIII media day, for example, Sainz went around touching players' biceps as part of what she called a "strongest arm" competition.

[+] EnlargeJets
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDid the Jets mistreat Sainz? The NFL is investigating.

At last season's Super Bowl between the Colts and Saints, Sainz allowed herself to be carried on the shoulders of a couple of Indianapolis players.

Then there's the matter of the attire she's worn on the job around professional football. A quick Google search turns up numerous images of Sainz standing on a football field in clothing that seems better suited for a nightclub.

"It's my style," Sainz told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America." "It is my style for all my life."

In no way am I saying Sainz deserved to be disrespected because of what she wore or that she doesn't bring a hard-hitting, Barbara Walters-type approach to her job.

It isn't fair, but female sports journalists have to adhere to unspoken rules that our male counterparts never have to consider. Otherwise, the door is left open for comments such as the ones Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis made when he was asked on a D.C. radio show about Sainz's situation.

"You know, somebody got to spark her interest, or she's going to want somebody. I don't know what kind of woman won't, if you get to go and look at 53 men's [bodies]," Portis said. "I know you're doing a job, but at the same time, the same way I'm going to cut my eye if I see somebody worth talking to, I'm sure they do the same thing."

Portis apologized later, but this is why I'm less inclined to support Sainz. I realize that Latin television might be risqué by U.S. standards and that there are different cultural rules in play here in terms of dress and approach. She works for a network that has a track record of putting its female talent in compromising situations with athletes. At Super Bowl XLII in 2008, another TV Azteca reporter named Ines Gomez Mont wore a wedding dress to media day and asked Tom Brady to marry her. In fact, that reporter kept referring to herself as "the real Mrs. Brady."

In fairness, there are always shenanigans at Super Bowl media day, and they've often involved male reporters.

But isn't it fair, too, to wonder whether Sainz's flirty, fluffy reporting style might blur the lines for the players? I have a hard time believing the Jets would treat USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, a pioneer for female sports journalists, the way they allegedly treated Sainz.

[+] EnlargeInes Sainz
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin,One of Sainz's "strongest arm" candidates at the Super Bowl in 2009 was Arizona's Steve Breaston.

I was disappointed that Brennan and the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) have rushed to support Sainz. Yes, their response brings attention to a serious issue, but sometimes the wrong person can undermine the right cause. I respect AWSM immensely and credit the organization for mentoring women like me and helping us understand how to navigate the male-dominated world of sports.

But is Sainz the best candidate for martyrdom?

"You can't say if it's wrong for one person but it's right for the others," said Joanne Gerstner, a current AWSM board member and past president. "It's an attitude. We want to show we're watching. We demand to have courtesy, respect and professionalism in the locker room."

As someone who has covered sports for more than a decade, I demand those things, too. Should the NFL's investigation of the Jets show that Sainz was mistreated, the players and the team should be publicly reprimanded and fined.

I'm also pleased that members of AWSM will meet with the Jets to discuss how the team can maintain an environment that isn't threatening to women. I just hope the organization realizes the Jets aren't the only ones who need to be educated.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

In a Sept. 14 column on ESPN.com, Ines Sainz was referred to as a "former Miss Spain." A woman with the same name was Miss Spain in 1997, but she is not the same woman as the Sainz who works for TV Azteca.

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