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Issue of sex appeal shouldn’t confuse right and wrong in treatment of sideline reporters

We decided as a nation a while ago that, no matter how provocatively a woman is dressed, she never invites sexual assault or harassment. Period.

So why is that concept so hard for some people in the sports world to accept?

The latest casualty of the odd sexual hypocrisy in professional sports was TV Azteca reporter Ines Sainz, a nine-year veteran of the sideline reporting biz who found herself singled out during a Saturday practice by the New York Jets, reportedly subjected to hoots, ogling and passes thrown at her direction by the coaches, prompting players to run near her.

“The line (between acceptable joking and harassment) is very fragile…I feel the environment was uncomfortable,” said Sainz this morning in an interview with NBC’s Today show. Later, the sportscaster demurred when asked if she felt harassed, saying she shrugged off the incident until she saw news accounts of what the players were saying. “I prefer the NFL make the judgment.”

If the reporting from the scene is accurate, Jets coaches, players and public relations staff tolerated the scene, which Sainz said made her feel “uncomfortable.” Complicating matters, the reporter didn’t complain about the treatment officially, despite sending messages on Twitter while it was happening; the Association for Women in Sports Media eventually demanded an investigation by the NFL, which is ongoing.

But even though Jets owner Woody Johnson reportedly has apologized to Sainz and she has accepted it, the incident unearthed the ongoing, fitful relationship between model-pretty sideline reporters and the sports they cover.

There is little doubt Sainz has used her beauty to advance her fame as a broadcaster. Her personal website, Twitter page and the TV Azteca web site are filled with photos of her in swimsuits and short skirts, along with several images of Sainz posing for magazine covers in bikinis.

When the Today show featured Sainz, it prefaced her interview with a story showing off the former Miss Spain’s alluring photos. But she may not be well-known outside the world of Spanish-language television; those looking for more information on her after the Jets incident found she didn’t even have a Wikipedia page – a basic sign of celebrity in America.

And though she wears jeans during her sideline work, she does sometimes look more suited for an evening of nightclubbing than chasing down Spanish-speaking players for her broadcasts.

None of which justifies how she was treated by the Jets organization.

Indeed, it seems the media world often conflates two issues which don’t belong together when such incidents happen – most notably, when ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews was victimized by a stalker who released secretly-taken nude videos of her filmed through a gimmicked peephole in a hotel room.

Already known as “Erin Pageviews” for the online attention photos of her in tight clothing along sidelines drew on sports blogs, Andrews found long-simmering controversies about her dress and physical beauty surfacing in some stories about the crime.

Making matters odder, Andrews’ higher profile following intense media coverage of that devastating crime has only made her more compelling as a celebrity and broadcaster.

Even as the man who took the videos was caught, prosecuted and sentenced for the crime, Andrews was joining the cast of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars — placing third on the second most-watched TV show on network TV – eventually negotiating a new ESPN contract with expanded opportunities beyond sports.

For both Andrews and Sainz, it’s tough to dispute that a major factor in their charisma as broadcasters involves their sex appeal.

But the issue of how that relates to their work as sports journalists should always be separate from how they are treated by fans, athletes, the general public and the institutions they are covering.

And I write these words as someone who conflated the two bit myself when Andrews’ story became a media tsunami, authoring a column for the St. Petersburg Times last year asking whether the crime against her was, in part, “born from a sexist sports journalism culture.”

Back then, I even quoted award-winning CBS Sports journalist Lesley Visser, who admitted “I think all of us in the media have fostered this culture, in the hopes of driving more people to our networks, our columns and our radio shows . . . . Every woman in this business has dealt with unwanted attention, but this culture makes it more difficult. Erin's America is the merger of a beautiful woman and a lawless Internet.”

I don’t dispute Visser’s words and I agreed with them wholeheartedly at the time.

Now, however, I’m feeling slightly different.

Those who want to challenge the appropriateness of using beautiful sideline reporters in covering sports should challenge these journalists and the organizations which employ them for what the women do in their broadcasts and how their outlets exploit their image. For sure, there’s a valid debate to be had about whether sports media outlets are featuring beautiful sideline reporters because of their journalism skills or appearance.

But when that image leads someone else to do something that is clearly wrong, then it’s time to deal with that injustice, apart from the larger issue of how some in sports media use sex appeal to sell their products.

Using an incident like the ones involving Andrews and Sainz to kick off a wider discussion just confuses the issue too much, I think.

Because, no matter how provocatively a woman is dressed, she never invites sexual assault or harassment.

Period.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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