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Thursday, December 8, 2011
MLB's new dress code is really about women

By Jane McManus

Muscle shirts.

That's how I figured out that baseball's new media dress guidelines have more to do with what women wear. They might as well have thrown in clown shoes, beaver-skin top hats and parachute pants -- because I've been in press boxes for the last 15 years and I cannot recall ever seeing a muscle shirt.

My guess is that someone didn't want the reporter's list of What Not To Wear to be exclusively feminine. Hence, the dreaded muscle-shirt ban.

To recap the news: Major League Baseball is instituting dress guidelines for reporters. Among the guidelines: All shorts and skirts should be no more than 3-4 inches above the knee; no tank tops, team logos or flip-flops; and reporters should dress in business casual. This was done in conjunction with some members of the media, and was ostensibly gender neutral. In fact, Susan Slusser, vice president of the Baseball Writers Association of America and one of the members of the committee that crafted the guidelines, called the process "absolutely gender nonspecific."

It is no doubt true that many male sports reporters look like extras from "Weekend at Bernie's," but that's not the reason for this policy.

This policy is about women.

An Associated Press story says, "The skimpy attire worn by some of the TV reporters covering the Marlins in Miami drew particular scrutiny."

Also referenced was the infamous appearance of TV Azteca reporter Ines Sainz at a Jets practice more than a year ago. If any team could have been saved some trouble by having a media dress code, it's the Jets. So I asked coach Rex Ryan, whose owner Woody Johnson had to pay for a leaguewide program on appropriate behavior in the workplace, what he thought of MLB's new policy.

He smiled, glanced down at his gray sweatpants and Jets hoodie, and then surveyed a room of reporters that included four or five smartly dressed women.

"I hope there's no dress code for the media deal, I certainly hope that's not the case," Ryan said. "You guys look better than I do. So, I don't know, you guys won't have any problem anyway. Everybody always looks good."

Actually, there was at least one credentialed woman present who would not have been in compliance with the new MLB guidelines -- and nonetheless looked flawlessly professional. (Her dress would have been considered too short, but she paired it with black tights for a completely tasteful look.) If these rules came to the NFL, every woman in the room would have to get dressed with a ruler in hand to measure skirt length, and each conscientious female reporter would be a little bit insecure about the ramifications of a bra strap peeking out of her shirt.

Guys who cover baseball were joking about this in a few reports and via social media, because they know it will never apply to them. No one would dream of measuring their shorts, no matter how frayed. The only time clothing has been an issue in press boxes has been when women are scrutinized.

I've been in the press box with Sainz, and no, I wouldn't have worn her outfit to go to work. A lot of women who are in press boxes are torn when it comes to reporters who dress provocatively. Reporters of both genders should dress professionally, period. A press box can't be confused with a night club, especially when the fluorescent lighting is so unflattering and stadiums play so much '80s metal.

So when female beat writers see a woman wearing stilettos and a Kleenex of a blouse on the sidelines, it is cringe-inducing. But we don't want to have to be the clothing police, or lumped in with people whose job is based in part on how they look. Or have to forgo an appropriate tank top on a hot day during spring training in Arizona or Florida.

Usually a team that finds a reporter behaving inappropriately can go to that person's media outlet. That's what happened in 2008, when Lou Piniella didn't like ESPN reporter Erin Andrews' dress.

"Are you doing a baseball game today or a modeling assignment?" Piniella reportedly asked.

But some stations are hiring women based on sex appeal. So perhaps asking an outlet to speak to a personality it is marketing as the "hottest sports reporter in Mexico" (Sainz's tagline) won't have the desired effect. And the composition of the press box is changing. The credentialed reporters aren't all representing major daily papers; some are bloggers who work for themselves, and therefore are adhering to no particular company dress code. There is speculation that MLB's new guidelines are directed at these predominantly male bloggers, as well, the sloppiest of whom could certainly stand to take it up a notch.

Reporters don't work for MLB, so enforcement is an issue. Does the Marlins' PR person have to scrutinize everyone's attire and check you off on a list? Is it like indecent material -- they will know it when they see it? Maybe covering a game will be like going to a fancy restaurant and forgetting your jacket, but the maitre d' has a secret stash in the coat check.

The policy is unenforceable, and the people who will be affected by it are the ones who actually care enough to dress professionally in the first place.

As for the few who don't, what has worked for some teams in the wake of the Sainz scandal is to remind players that they are to treat all credentialed media in the same professional manner. If someone is dressed provocatively, don't be provoked. You don't give athletes enough credit if you assume they are all helpless to resist the occasional miniskirt.

But is this really such a widespread problem that a whole set of guidelines had to be issued? Thanks baseball, now I can't wear my sequined tube top and matching flip-flops to the season opener. And if that's the case, we all lose.