Thursday, September 1, 2011

Privacy & Reporters in Locker Rooms
A Physician’s View

Ines Sainz  Sports Reporter
This subject is not medical privacy per se, but it is likely the most egregious violation of personal privacy that our society sanctions and indeed encourages.  As a privacy advocate, I feel that the subject needs to be reviewed with all sides heard.  Certainly the whole topic is never discussed openly on news or sports channels unless there has been a new incident and the athletes’ case for privacy is rarely then explored.   Our present policy of allowing all reporters into locker rooms while the men are showering and changing sets a standard, a very low standard, for the rest of society.   Women reporters sometimes justify their forays into male locker rooms by comparing themselves with female physicians.   This ignores the differences.  All physicians have trained for many years and are sworn to protect and uphold their patients’ privacy.  They have a license to lose if they violate their oaths.  Reporters are under no privacy obligation, may have little training, and are not licensed.  Training is also lacking for the assistants who enter the locker room with the reporters, especially the photographers.  Thus there is no comparison between physicians and reporters as it concerns protecting privacy.  In fact much of reporters’ jobs consist of violating privacy; an extreme example is the UK’s scandal with Murdoch’s News of the World.   Medicine routinely protects their patients’ privacy even in locker rooms.  It is my understanding that the training/medical areas of professional locker rooms are usually off limits to reporters.   Medical standards of privacy far surpass anything in sports.

But there is a larger legal question as well.  In locker rooms, prisons, and healthcare equal employment rights have generally been held to trump privacy rights.  This is especially true when it’s women’s employment rights versus male privacy.  The laws work both ways in theory, but they often aren’t applied equally.  In medicine, some courts have held that male nurses can be excluded from labor and delivery.  In urology clinics no one has even suggested that male nurses and assistants should be given preference, let alone that female nurses could be excluded.  This is despite the fact that lots of men are embarrassed by the presence of women assisting on intimate procedures.  The situation is confounded by the reluctance of men to complain; it is not macho to be modest or embarrassed.  That of course is especially true in professional sports locker rooms where testosterone rules.

Let me say at the outset, I support women’s right to equal access to athletes and it is the accepted law in this country.  I’m against it being accomplished at the expense of athletes.  Women did not devise this system, but the leagues and their owners remain far more concerned with maximum publicity and profits than with privacy.  I’m disappointed that women reporters use their considerable influence to support the present system instead of reforming it as women have often done when their own privacy is at stake.  Many women reporters have stated that they would prefer interviewing athletes at a neutral time when they are not showering or dressing.  But the AWSM (Association of Women in Sports Media), their trade lobby in effect, has never pushed for it.  They should; it would greatly increase their credibility.

The precedent setting decision that opened the way for women in locker rooms is now over 30  years old  (Melissa Ludtke & Time Inc vs. Bowie Kuhn, 1978).  The decision applies strictly only in New York, but has never been challenged.  Women have entered locker rooms in increasing numbers since that time.   The decision is sometimes misinterpreted.  It does not mandate access to locker rooms by women reporters or anyone else for that matter.  Locker rooms remain private and the leagues control all access.  But they can no longer discriminate by gender when they grant access.  In other words, they can ban all access or limit it under any non discriminatory rules.  Some reporters have claimed that professional locker rooms are public areas.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  If it was, fans would try to enter after each game.  Access passes are tightly controlled.

Reporters often defend the status quo on the basis that no athlete is exposed against their will.  That is basically correct.  The athletes are encouraged to wear towels or robes, but surely that is still an imposition which few women would tolerate themselves when dressing.  If that was generally accepted behavior, we’d see people changing on beaches all the time.  Even with robes and towels however, it was not always possible to avoid exposure and may still not be possible in some locker rooms, especially in baseball’s minor leagues.  Sports reporter Susan Fornoff in her book Lady in the Locker Room, Uncovering the Oakland Athletics (1993) describes one MLB locker room, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where reporters had to walk past an open shower area and urinals to get to the locker room, regularly going past nude athletes.  Ms. Fornoff says she complained about it to management.  It took years for them to even hang a curtain to block visual access.  She states Candlestick Park in San Francisco was similar.  Even today most athletes are briefly exposed while they change, and there are always a few who will prance around nude, sometimes to purposely harass the ladies that are present.  But the answer is not to register these guys as sex offenders as would happen if this occurred outside the locker room, but to change an unreasonable system.

There is no doubt that if the genders were reversed, the situation would be considered a hostile work environment under Federal law subject to lawsuit and redress.  Instead the situation has been turned upside down.  If the men should post pinups on their lockers, it would be declared a hostile work environment for women!  This issue arose again in 2008 when the Chicago White Sox put a blow up doll in the locker room and a woman reporter complained of a hostile environment.  It’s a lose-lose situation for the men.  They are denigrated if they complain about the presence of women while they are changing and showering but are not permitted any locker room antics themselves without the risk of a complaint being made by the media.

A year ago, another in a series of periodic incidents arose when Ines Sainz, a Mexican feature reporter, accused the New York Jets of harassing her.  This charge was really made public by the AWSM.   In response to the resulting media storm, WTTW, Chicago public TV, organized a forum consisting of 4 women sports reporters to discuss the issue.  The opening question was ‘why are we still discussing this decades later.’   The answer is simple, because it still remains an unprecedented violation of privacy.  The issue will never go away until it is redressed.  Their discussion does make some good points and is well worth listening through.   Still a basic question remains, why invite only women reporters to discuss the issue?   That’s like having a forum on the causes of poverty and inviting only billionaires to be on the panel.  Is it any wonder these women don’t see a problem?  Why not constitute a panel with an equal representation of athletes?  If current athletes feel inhibited from commenting, I’m sure they could find former athletes willing to talk on the record.  The only athletes that the mass media quoted at the time of the incident were those that made sexist remarks, such as Clinton Portis whose comment about women reporters finding some of the ‘packages’ they see attractive was widely publicized.  That comment was made off the cuff by an athlete who wasn’t familiar with the incident.  I’m sure they’d have no trouble finding some more thoughtful comments.  Lance Briggs is another example of a player who was criticized for saying women don’t belong in the locker room.  In prior years they also did a number on Reggie White who is still being lambasted for saying that he saw no reason to be naked in front of any woman who wasn’t his wife, hardly an outrageous opinion.  Does the mass media prefer to paint athletes who’d appreciate some privacy as Neanderthals?  Needless to say there have been a wealth of sexist comments by women reporters as well, the most publicized perhaps being Patti Shea’s giggling adolescent like column of her first impression of nude athletes.  This column was roundly denounced by women reporters as the rare exception to their ‘professionalism.’  The original column from the Santa Clarita Signal is no longer available online, but can be found in its entirety on other sites.   

A brief quote from her foray into the Dodgers locker room:  Just then, Shawn Green emerges from the showers, rubbing a towel on his head and wearing only a towel. Three millimeters thick of terry cloth is separating Green's goodies from my life's most embarrassing moment. I really didn't have that much time to think about it before Green whipped off the towel and began to get dressed. Holy &#$@!!!   I'm going to need to see a chiropractor for the whiplash I gave myself.   

I don’t quote that column to prove that reporters are irresponsible.  Indeed established women reporters are surely overwhelmingly professional and would disapprove of that column.  But we are all human with urges and thoughts we can’t always suppress.  We can only surmise how young women reporters and photographers react early in their careers.  How many private videos are in existence of nude athletes in the locker room or unseen interviews that had to be discarded because a nude athlete walked by during the filming?  A few have indeed been inadvertently shown on TV; an example is Minnesota Viking’s tight end VisantheShiancoe on local Fox TV.  This caused no Federal reaction unlike the brouhaha over a microsecond exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl.  

Even according to this WTTW discussion, most athletes would rather be left alone in the locker room.  The panelists said the men preferred to be free of any reporters, regardless of gender.   I’m sure that is true, yet this was not an issue 30 years ago before women entered locker rooms.  Women in the locker room are a game changer.  The athletes’ opinions were looked at in a poll by Sports Illustrated, October 15, 1990.  Of 143 NFL players 38.5 percent were in favor of women reporters entering the locker room, while 47.6 percent were opposed, and 13.9 percent were undecided.   A poll is almost beside the point though as any individual’s right to bodily privacy is not subject to and cannot be taken away by majority vote.  Still, an updated survey is needed which not only asks athletes if they support the status quo but if they would prefer alternative solutions.  Athletes remain role models and celebrities in our society.  If they would admit that they too like a little privacy, it would make it much easier for all men.  The average guy would be less embarrassed asking for privacy in medical and other situations as well.  The behavior of athletes helps set a standard for society.

The WNBA had no trouble finding an acceptable solution giving equal access to all reporters: “The room (locker room) will re-open 5 to 10 minutes after the final buzzer and will remain open for a minimum of 30 minutes. Following the 30-minute media access period, locker rooms will be closed for a 20-30 minute period to allow players to shower and dress. The locker rooms may then again be opened to the media.”   

The male sports leagues could adopt a similar policy tomorrow.  Indeed similar solution have been advocated for years for the men; here’s one from Sports Illustrated in 1990.  The WNBA solution satisfies all reporter demands for immediate access to catch the emotions of the players following a game.  It doesn’t require any modifications to the locker room layouts.  What prevents it,  maybe only tradition.  Occasionally the need to make immediate travel connections shortens the time allowed after a game.  If time was in short supply, the leagues can already eliminate or shorten access time.

In summary, I am in favor of equal opportunity employment rights.  I am also in favor of full privacy rights given to male athletes just as they are presently granted to women athletes.  These objectives are not incompatible.  The time is long past due when professional sports leagues revise their rules so that all reporters, photographers et al are prohibited from locker room access while athletes are showering and dressing.  I believe that we are the only country in the world where this situation is routine (excluding American leagues in Canada).  Better yet locker rooms should all be remodeled to provide areas which are not sensitive for media access to athletes.  Recognition and correction of this issue would reverberate throughout all of society improving privacy rights for all including patients under treatment.