Opinion: Please Help Me Believe There’s Anything Other Than Systemic Harassment Taking Place

systemic

I don’t feel a need to explain how much I love the Jets, I think that writing daily on this site, for the past six years, is testament enough.  If one really loves someone in life, sometimes addressing difficult issues for their betterment, with “tough love”, is the right thing to do.  It pains me to so openly point out some serious concerns I have about the Jets organization. But there seems to be a growing perception of systemic misogyny through some recent unfortunate incidents.

I don’t imagine that my words will change the way that professional sports operate, or the way that players conduct themselves, or that all fans who read this will suddenly all agree with my opinion, but to silently allow the issue to continue, in my mind, wouldn’t be right either.  Also, let’s be very clear that I’m not saying that I live a perfect life and haven’t learned lessons the hard way, but if we waited for someone to who has lived a wholly virtuous life to address this, then we might be here for a while.

This opening statement is of course pre-text to the presently alleged event of former Jet QB Brett Favre sexting former Jets Game Day Host Jenn Sterger reported on Deadspin and now the subsequent harassment of massage therapists coming forward.  Over the past months since this story was first hinted at by Deadspin, I’ve had this story confirmed to me by multiple independent sources who knew about this, saw the pictures, etc. But beyond just Favre’s inappropriate actions, I’m also talking about the Ines Sainz incident, and yes … even the Gate D situation of a few years back.

Why bring up old wounds?  Because they are just that, wounds.  Sexual harassment is no trivial thing, and for any to use excuses like, ‘This happened years ago,’ or, ‘She wasn’t even an employee,’ or, ‘Favre isn’t even here anymore’ are arguments in poor taste.

“We view these as isolated incidents,” said Bruce Speight, Jets spokesman, by phone on Friday. “And we took a proactive approach when they were brought to our attention.”

It’s a fair statement if the only concern is to address harassment from a reactionary standpoint. Pro-actively they need to set forth establishing new guidelines to prevent such situations in the future, and as far as I can tell, there is no such plan in place for the Jets.

The way that the Jets are addressing the situation, it would appear to me that Jets can only act on wrongdoing that they know about after the fact, by the mounting evidence, they are terrible at preventing it.  

Finding blame in sexual harassment can be a tricky thing, which is why forward thinking organizations have zero or near-zero tolerance policies when it comes to harassment of any kind.  I’ve requested a copy of the Jets harassment policy, and will post what I find out, when I know more.

At the business where I work, all parties (harasser, harassed, witness), no matter their employment status, in the case of any sexual harassment can be culpable if they don’t immediately bring up the incident.  More often than not, it should be the witness for whom is the easiest to act.  Of course, some parties might be less culpable than others (specifically the harassed, for obvious reasons), but the point that harassment, or even perceived harassment should be immediately addressed by all involved directly or indirectly is tantamount to making the system work and to prevent hostile environments, and future incidents.

Let’s look at the scenarios.

gateD Gate D. The sporting facility was rented/owned respectively by the Jets & New Jersey Sports Exposition Authority organizations.  In the case of Gate D, NJSEA employees ran the facility and were in charge of security. Despite NJSEA’s responsibility, incidents have happened frequently as a longstanding tradition.  Jets fans acted as the harasser, harassed and witness.  While it would be nice for Jets fans to police themselves, the NJSEA was the truer police of the situation; this policing is part of their contractual obligation.  Despite the frequency of the events, as well as easily verifiable evidence by simply watching Gate D during the games, neither the NJSEA nor the Jets took proactive steps to curb the abhorrent behavior. Failure to act ultimately made both organizations appear to be responsible.  If there is any good news out of this, it’s that in the new stadium security is directly controlled by the team, so there should be no excuses for these type of issues.

Inez-Sainz-Skinny-Jeans Inez Sainz.  In the case of Sainz, inappropriate statements of a sexual and derogatory manner were being made in the locker room for an indeterminate duration.  It wasn’t until a reporter (witness) intervened to the harassed (Sainz) as a Jets PR staffer (witness, but seemingly with more authority in the situation than the reporter) looked on.  The reporter’s intervention was then rebuked by Kris Jenkins.  Action on the matter by the Jets PR staffer was not immediate, and thus the team appears to be responsible both by not being proactive to the incident. While the team did immediately contact Joanne Gerstner at the American Women in Sports Media, it was again reactionary in nature.

sterger15 Jenn Sterger. In the case of Sterger, the original story was broken by Deadspin on 8/6/10. We’re led to believe by Deadspin that she was not only approached in an inappropriate manner, but that she unequivocally declined, and also that Favre had the help of a fellow Jets employee, Jets Media Relations Manager Jared Winle
y in approaching her multiple times in order to initiate some sort of relationship that Sterger did not want.  Action on the matter wasn’t immediate, ultimately making the organization appear to be not only negligent in duty, but potentially complicit in the sexual harassment of Sterger.

Massage Therapists. In the case of Favre and the massage therapists, the original story was broken by Deadspin and the Post on 8/8/10. The women received “nasty” messages from Favre, who allegedly would not apologize to one of the therapists’ husband, and who were told by a lawyer that since they were contractors, their claims had no merit.  Whoever that lawyer was, clearly his degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, something which Florio and I actually seem to agree on.  This matter is still working itself out, but sounds like another cautionary tale of poor pro-activity and maybe even worse reactivity.  I can only conclude that the lawyer in question was an in-house counsel for the Jets (translation: hack) who had the team’s, not the therapists, best interests at heart.

On Thursday, Deadspin Editor-in-Chief AJ Daulerio wrote about this, saying the following.

The Jets have issued a statement through Sunshine PR, saying that "this is the first they’ve heard of this situation." The team also made it known that Sterger was a contractor hired to work on game days only, and that she didn’t work directly for the Jets

Daulerio mentions Sunshine, Sachs & Associates, whom I called today to better understand the quote to the Deadspin Editor.  Upon my reading of the part about her being a contractor, caused me serious concern.  The specific status (employee, contractor) holds in a workplace doesn’t provide immunity from harassment laws, and I was hoping that wasn’t what the Jets thought, which is why I pressed the matter and was referred by the team to Sunshine, Sachs & Associates.

Mr. Jesse Derris said that Daulerio repeatedly referred to Sterger as an “employee” and Sunshine told Daulerio that they wanted to make clear her status as a contractor.  “[Sunshine, Sachs & Associates was] correcting an anticipated error in the story [by Deadspin], nothing more.”

So while it’s clear she was not an employee, it doesn’t acquit the Jets organization of workplace harassment, it just adjusted any potential foul-ups about her 1099 status. 

In any organization, sexual harassment can happen to employees, vendors, contractors, guests … it doesn’t matter who writes their paycheck, unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace are, just that, unwelcome and in the workplace. And just because something wrong happened in the past doesn’t sanctify it in the present, whether that player is still on the team or no longer there.  Harassment is harassment, plain & simple.

Ms. Sterger might not have reported what Favre did at the time, but AJ Daulerio at Deadspin seems eager to fill in the gaps.

Daulerio said Sterger did not provide the photos and voicemails and declined comment for his post. "She doesn’t want to be seen as Rachel Uchitel," Daulerio said of Sterger, referring to one of Tiger Woods’ mistresses, "even though she didn’t do anything wrong. It would be interesting to get her take on it."

[…]

"There is a pattern of recklessness with athletes that seems alarming," Daulerio said. "He’s a high-profile, public person. For him to engage in this kind of behavior – we think that is newsworthy."

Sadly, as far as we know, Sterger didn’t in fact report the incident at the time to the team (which according to the Jets, we can imply that she didn’t). Unless she breaks her silence, it only leaves doubt about whether the allegations were actual harassment or something else. 

My meaning?  Her role in the matter will always (rightly or wrongly) be suspect because of her subsequent actions.  Personally, I believe her to be a legitimate victim, which makes the whole thing even sadder because she was subjected to something she shouldn’t have been, and she is apparently ok with it, and that as part of becoming a Jets contractor, sexual harassment wasn’t properly addressed.  Sterger’s inaction, and then subsequent sharing of this correspondence with others (a third party who then shared them with AJ) have left her status and credibility in the matter suspect.

This second set of massage therapists is tragic too, since they received terrible legal counsel from a questionable source. 

When a specific type of event happens once, it is “isolated.” When it happens a second time, it is an unusual recurrence. However, the more it happens, the less one can live with the cognitive dissonance and try and ignore the problem. It has gone from an isolated event to something else that might be systemic. No matter what the team might say, there is a pattern here.

Since this Sterger story broke yesterday, TheJetsBlog has been approached by a former Gameday Ops (i.e. JetsFest) intern who said that a few years ago, interns were mandated to wear sparkly, tight-fitting official Reebok materials that left little to the imagination. When female interns pushed back on concerns of decency, they were rebuffed by their boss  in the Jets organization (someone who has since left the team) and told it was NFL sanctioned clothing, end of story.  How tight the shirt was, what the outfit specifically was is irrelevant.  The interns (yet another status in the workplace who should be afforded equal protection) voiced their concerns, and they were not addressed.

I’m not foolish enough to think that this is a Jets only problem; other players in the league have let us know a little about such bad behavior.

Just this past May, Kansas City WR Dwayne Bowe was caught bragging about his teammates ‘importing’ women . Even NFL Golden Boy Peyton Manning was flagged for allegedly engaging in “horseplay” back in college, and then later in his alleged barging in on a former Colts cheerleader in her hotel room.  While we’re a long way from the days of former Patriot Zeke Mowatt’s abhorrent acts to Lisa Olson, it’s clear that there’s still room for betterment within the league. It’s clear that the Jets aren’t alone on this, but it’s certainly true that they are getting more than their fair share of ink around these incidents. 

Still, even if the Jets are getting more than their fair share, it’s only because these stories are coming to light with greater
frequency.  Greater numbers of people are willing to be witnesses to actions that are inappropriate. If two people are driving over the speed limit on the highway, and one gets caught by a cop and the other doesn’t, it doesn’t make the person who didn’t get caught right… it just means they didn’t get caught by the cop.

Sunshine, Sachs PR did claim that the Jets didn’t know about this matter with Sterger until very recently; meaning they did not know about it two months ago when this story first was hinted at on Deadspin.

On that count, I have no facts so this is totally my opinion, but that is something that I personally find very hard to believe.  The talk of these pictures was all over major market sports radio for days after Deadspin hinted at this… this can’t be the first the team is hearing about this can it? Are they that naive to the fact that they were tangentially the butt of the jokes about Favre’s orange clogs or whatever Internet-wide for the past few months?

And what about Goodell and the league office? Not one of them got wind of this months ago when it hit Deadspin and informed the team? So a league which is overly sensitive to how players talk in a locker room in moments when they are most vulnerable to speaking candidly about the league officiating are suddenly ignorant when it comes to players talking or acting towards women in a much more derogatory manor?

The political phrase “willfully ignorant” comes to mind.

I don’t know specifically what I’m asking for to change.  I don’t know that it ever will in professional sports, but I do know that I’m seeing something that is increasingly hard for me to ignore as a fan.  I’ve called out the organization for not acting immediately, but also have to practice on the matter which I’m calling them to action.

Like any witness to harassment, it’s my job to take that toughest step forward, the very first one, and address the situation with you, the fans.  It’s my job to tell the truth about what I saw, but beyond that, it’s up to authorities to do right and restore the situation by taking whatever justice is merited.

I’ve done my part … now it’s up to the Jets and the NFL to do theirs.