OPINION: Women in the Locker Room? Are We Having This Conversation Again?

Inés Sainz returns to work this week, but has announced that she will steer clear of locker rooms to conduct player interviews.

While her decision is garnering some attention, the move is unlikely to create any sort of ripple effect for women throughout the sports media sphere. Female journalists have continued to do our jobs ever since a few players cat-called the TV Azteca reporter in the New York Jets’ locker room last month.

Her absence in locker rooms and presence on the sidelines won’t change that.

The Sainz saga made for splashy tabloid headlines and spirited talk show sound bites, and her return will no doubt generate another round of debate.

Does she dress too suggestively? I’m not the fashion police.

Is there a cultural disconnect? You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to realize you see a lot more skin on “República Deportiva” than you do on “SportsCenter.”

Should women be allowed in the locker room? Are we really having this conversation again?

The truth is, the Inés Sainz story has been blown wildly out of proportion. The woman at the center of this controversy has said as much herself. But asinine comments from folks like Clinton Portis aside – he suggested that Sainz and other female reporters can’t help but be attracted to some of the athletes they cover – I do believe some good has come from this situation.

Shortly after the story broke, Jets owner Woody Johnson personally apologized to Sainz. The National Football League quickly launched an investigation and admitted Jets players and coaches should have acted more professionally.

That’s a far cry from 20 years ago, when Patriots beat reporter Lisa Olson was accosted in the locker room by New England players, whose actions were defended by the team’s then-owner.

While the Sainz situation has been unfortunate and exacerbated by the media storm, this incident shows there has been progress. The next step is further examining the disparities that exist for women, particularly Latinas and women of color, in the male-dominated world of sports journalism.

It’s been 32 years since women were granted entry into locker rooms. Why are we still talking about access when there are so many more pressing issues in sports and our society?

According to the Associated Press Sports Editors’ 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card, Hispanic women constituted just .31 percent of sports reporters – seven out of the 2,236 included in the survey. Of 417 sports columnists, none were Latina. And not one sports department among the 378 newspapers and Web sites surveyed was headed by a Latina editor.

In fact, the only sports section position where Hispanic women accounted for more than 1 percent was the support staff/clerks, the lowest job on the chart.

Even more troubling, the number of Hispanic women in assistant sports editor jobs dropped in the last two years to 3 from 13 – despite an overall increase in the total number of positions. Over that same span, the total number of Latinas in sports journalism positions dipped from a mere .68 percent to a nearly invisible .42 percent.

Why are we up in arms over what Inés Sainz wears, but seemingly unconcerned about where to find the next generation of female and Hispanic sports journalists?

Instead of discussing Sainz’s decision to avoid locker rooms, we need to look around and realize how few Latinas are even in them to begin with.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist and chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force.