Commentary

Sainz incident helped Jets grow up

Owner's response: an anti-harassment program that's a model for the league

Updated: September 11, 2013, 2:09 PM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com

Ines SainzMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsInes Sainz, at Super Bowl media day, says she felt she had to defend her work.

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It's important to Ines Sainz that she isn't blamed for what happened three years ago Wednesday.

You probably remember the headlines. A New York Jets assistant coach purposely overthrew balls in her direction on a practice field, to watch her jump. Later, half-dressed players in the Jets locker room catcalled her, yelling, "Chica bonita!" like teenage boys on a street corner.

Although the resulting flurry of unwanted attention was annoying to Sainz, the Spanish-language TV reporter stresses in a telephone interview from Azteca America offices in Mexico City that she was not offended by the players' behavior. The next day, in fact, Sainz walked into the NFL offices on Park Avenue and signed all the papers league investigators asked her to. She signed one that said she was telling the truth, and then wrote out her own her version of events, signing the bottom of that one, too.

"I spoke to many lawyers there, and I said explained that I didn't feel uncomfortable and I'm pretty sure it wasn't sexual harassment," Sainz said.

[+] EnlargeSainz
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliSainz refuses to be seen as a victim.

Sainz was wearing her work outfit of jeans and a white blouse to interview Mark Sanchez that day, a uniform that suited her entertainment-focused network but didn't dovetail with American standards of business attire. Had she maintained that she was made to feel uncomfortable, as she initially tweeted in Spanish from the locker room, the backlash from elements of the fan base and the media might have been worse. Victim-blaming can be harsh, so it's understandable to try to avoid the victim's role altogether.

Other reporters, talking among themselves, quietly said they were uncomfortable -- particularly as nose tackle Kris Jenkins roared, "This is our locker room!" to anyone who tried to dampen the hijinks. But Sainz is the one who found herself in the spotlight, and, despite her efforts, she found it hard to defend her professionalism in a culture with different rules and customs.

"When you are away from home and they don't know your work, it's very hard to defend your work," Sainz said. "I'm used to having my work speak for me. ... [People] think you're the kind of person who takes advantage of a situation and not a professional reporter. It was a very difficult experience for me."

That might have been the end of it, but Jets owner Woody Johnson volunteered to fund a league-wide program to educate NFL players and teams about sexual harassment. Johnson made the announcement as the NFL was beginning its investigation and, in lieu of fines and suspensions, the NFL agreed that was a fitting conclusion to an unfortunate incident.

Sainz wants to be clear that she never pushed for the program but believes the NFL should do what's best for the league. "If they decide players need training about behavior and media women, if the NFL decides that they need it," Sainz said, "then I agree with that."

Over the next year, Johnson committed $205,000 to a program developed by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport In Society. Each team sent human resources personnel to Boston to take part in the training, but it was left up to the teams individually to decide how to disseminate the message to employees.

Sainz [People] think you're the kind of person who takes advantage of a situation and not a professional reporter. It was a very difficult experience for me.

-- Ines Sainz

For their part, the Jets continue to require the entire staff, including players, to participate in an annual anti-harassment workshop. "We strongly believe that everyone who has contact with the New York Jets should be treated with respect," Johnson said in a statement, "so continuing to educate members of our organization remains one of our top priorities."

When veterans such as kicker Nick Folk arrived at training camp in Cortland, N.Y., last July, preparing for a long stretch of dorm living, they knew one night would be dedicated to role-playing.

The anti-harassment session, which takes a few hours, is personal. Players are presented with scenarios and asked how they would respond. They use a stoplight system to discuss how acceptable different behaviors might be. Folk, who was with the team in 2010, thinks the training has been effective -- and even somewhat enjoyable.

"I think the core group of guys understand it," Folk said. "And they can pass it along to the younger guys, and they can learn from the older guys how to behave and do things the right way."

The truth is a lot of Jets players didn't like the way the incident made them look. Many are married and have families, and the appearance of a "Boys Gone Wild" atmosphere didn't play well. Only a few players participated in the catcalling -- and most of players on the offensive unit were out of the room -- but they all got painted with the same brush.

Rex Ryan, then going into his second season as a head coach, was a brash-talking expletive-thrower who had always lauded boldness. After the Sainz incident, a toned-down Ryan reminded players to be respectful of women in the locker room. And with that, the triage had begun. Johnson personally called Sainz and said she was always welcome to cover the team whenever she wanted to.

While Sainz never complained about anyone's behavior, other women did. That same year, massage therapists Christina Scavo and Shannon O'Toole and another team employee, Jenn Sterger, said they were harassed and propositioned by former quarterback Brett Favre. The therapists settled their suit against the team last March.

[+] EnlargeWoody Johnson
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJohnson put an end to the hijinks.

Seeing a potential pattern of behavior developing, the Jets implemented their ongoing training program, which has evolved to include anti-harassment training in many areas, including gender and sexual orientation. "I think sometimes as a male you say certain things to females and you don't mean anything by it, but it might be taken offensively," veteran linebacker Calvin Pace said. "It's not fair to a woman, it really isn't, and you don't really mean anything by it as a man, so it's just giving guys a refresher: These things are off-limits."

The Northeastern University group developed what executive director Dan Lebowitz called a bystander prevention program. What happened with Sainz happened in place where plenty of players saw it, but none spoke up.

"It applies to everybody," said Robert Gulliver, the NFL's chief human resources officer. "If you see something say something."

But when a lockout interrupted the 2011 offseason, the league gave anti-harassment handouts to teams to pass along to players that summarized the organization's expectations. It was not an ideal way to get the message distributed, Lebowitz admitted.

To Rick Dacri, a consultant on human resources for corporations and author of "Uncomplicating Management," distributing paper is far from the most effective way to set a tone. "Absolutely not," Dacri said. "And I'd be surprised if many read it. What I see in organizations who do similar things, like pass out a copy of their policy to be in compliance, is that doesn't change behavior. What changes behavior is when a CEO stands up in front of a group and says, 'We will never tolerate sexual harassment in our workplace.'"

Each NFL team can implement as much or as little of the training as it chooses, but the Jets have gone above and beyond since 2010, according to Jessica Mandler, the team's head of human resources. "One of the things we highlight is the locker room is the same as an office," Mandler said.

Mandler adds she hopes the Jets are heading off future issues when it comes to sexual orientation, religion, age or disability. Pace, who was with the Jets in 2010, thinks the program has worked and noted that the Jets haven't had any issues since then.

"You just don't want that; it's not a good look for yourself or the team, and it's always a distraction," Pace said.

Mandler believes the culture is changing, and is concise when asked if she thinks it's burdensome for players to have to treat the locker room like an office. "I don't," she said. "And I think they have to."

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

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