PARIS – Viewed from Europe, the story making news in American football this week of the New York Jets players who disgraced themselves by directing "Whooo-weee!" catcalls at a television reporter working in their locker room is bizarre and alien.
Ines Sainz's embarrassment is easy to understand and empathize with. And even on this side of the Atlantic, we grasped enough of the subsequent debate to disagree with those in the United States who argued that Sainz, of Mexico's TV Azteca, perhaps invited trouble by dressing too sexily. That can never be an excuse for such boorishness.
But reporters in the dressing room? What folly is that?
To those who work in sports outside of the United States and who jealously guard the privacy of locker rooms, the liberal access for reporters covering U.S. leagues is unthinkable and a recipe for problems or, depending on your point of view, the way of the future.
In the English Premier League, at the football World Cup, in international cricket or at the Olympics, Sainz — or any reporter — would never have been given access to the locker room. Nor will that change any time soon. Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson will have retired long before a reporter ever gets to see him unleash one of his famous "hairdryer" locker-room rants at a player who has angered him.
"Our managers would say that the dressing room is sacrosanct," says Premier League publicity manager Philip Dorward. "It will be a long time before that one comes to these shores. There's no call for it."
Ditto for the Olympics. "I can't imagine it," says International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams. "One can never say never, but it is extremely unlikely to be considered."
Same for the World Cup. "How can you open access to hundreds of journalists?" asks FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot. "It would be absolutely impossible for you to work in there.
"There's also, of course, the necessity of the privacy of the team," he says. Post-match happenings in the locker room — celebrations, sadness, tactical post-mortems, etc. — "are privileged moments which should be reserved for the teams."
One argument cited in Europe is that reporters don't need to enter locker rooms because they can speak to coaches and players in press conferences and in "mixed zones" the athletes walk through before or after they shower and change. There are no such zones in team sports in the United States. Instead, NFL and baseball locker rooms open to journalists of both sexes and to cameras starting 10 minutes after a game.
Another reason cited outside the United States is that locker rooms are often too small to accommodate reporters. For example, they hold "at a squeeze, 25-30 people, absolute max" at Lords, the London home of cricket, says James Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the sport's governing body, the ICC.
Cricket also wants to prevent any contacts between match-fixers and players or any leaks of information from within teams, such as when a player might bat, that could be valuable to gambling syndicates. Allegations that Pakistan players may have acted in cahoots with fixers are a current concern. Under ICC rules, only players, team staff and a handful of others are allowed into dressing rooms.
Former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin says that in football, players would want locker rooms kept shut because they don't trust the reporters who cover them. British tabloids are especially ruthless in exposing the unsavory sides of players' lives, like the recent claims that Man United striker Wayne Rooney paid prostitutes for sex.
Footballers "would want the journalists kept as far away as possible," says Nevin. Locker room access for reporters in the Premier League would be "laughable" and "so far beyond what is imaginable," he says.
But there is the beginning of change in Italy's top league. For the first time this season, broadcaster Sky is showing short footage, although still no interviews, from inside dressing rooms before matches. When newly promoted Cesena opened against AS Roma, in its first Serie A match in 20 seasons, Sky showed players looking extremely nervous and taut in their locker room.
"It was incredible, one minute of pure fear," says Sky publicity manager Flavio Natalia. "It's strange for Italy because up until now the locker rooms were like temples. We did not know what happened inside."
Even so, that is still a long way from U.S. reporters going en masse inside locker rooms after games and, in baseball, even before — regardless of the fact that players may still be changing or even naked. In 1998, for example, Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein spotted a brown bottle of testosterone-producing pills on the top shelf of Mark McGwire's locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum. With the exception of rugby, where locker room access is sometimes granted, reporters in Europe rarely get that close.
But perhaps they should. Gianni Merlo, president of the International Sports Press Association, a grouping of sports journalists' associations founded in 1924 during the Olympic Games in Paris, argues that it might perhaps have been harder for officials in the former East Germany to have hidden their doping of athletes had reporters been given greater access.
"To close the door sometimes is also to hide something," he says.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org