On Monday, Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch reported that Erin Andrews will be taking over Pam Oliver's role as Fox's top NFL sideline reporter. At the MLB All-Star Game, the day after her promotion was announced, Andrews interviewed Adam Wainwright as he backtracked on a previous admission that he grooved pitches for Derek Jeter. Wainwright was doing this because of a Twitter backlash for his casual, honest remark. When Wainwright finished his mea culpa, Andrews asked him, "Don't you love social media?" (Wainwright, refusing to relinquish his reputation as a forthcoming interviewee, replied, "No, I don't.") For some reason, the hosts of The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show in Boston did not find this funny.
"What a bitch! I hate her. What a gutless bitch!" the hosts spat while others laughed along to the tirades. It went on like this for a solid minute, as the hosts hurled gender-specific degradations such as "bitch" and "bimbo" at Andrews for reasons I gave up trying to figure out.
While this is undoubtedly an extreme example, sideline reporters have long been the brunt of criticism, largely due to the perception that they're "useless." It is, after all, the fourth suggested autocomplete on a Google search for "sideline reporter." In 2012, Drew Magary at Deadspin succinctly wrote, "sideline reporters are f---ing terrible." In 2009, also at Deadspin, Tommy Craggs spoke to the first sideline reporter, Jim Lampley, who said, "I'd get rid of [sideline reporters] entirely ... I just don't see what it adds."
What none of these criticisms consider is that sideline reporters are restricted on what they can and can't report. As the NFL Broadcast Fact Book states, as relayed through an NFL spokeswoman:
"During game action, the Network Sideline Reporter may remain on the field, behind the broken yellow line. The Sideline reporter is not allowed to go into the bench area at any time."
"The Sideline Reporter may do live reports at any time during the game. The Sideline Reporter should be assisted by a designated Club PR representative in gathering pertinent information regarding such topics as equipment changes, weather-related issues, and unique game happenings. Accurate and timely injury information should be given directly to the Sideline Reporter from each team's on-field representative after clearance from the team's PR Director in the press box."
"The Sideline Reporter may not comment on or report conversations overheard from the bench area. The reporters shall be limited to what the reporter visually observes and not what he/she hears." [All emphasis mine]
As for the vapid halftime interviews, the coaches know days in advance if they will be interviewed, giving them plenty of time to prepare their boilerplate remarks. All these regulations and procedures mean reporters are constantly shadowed by NFL team PR representatives, told where they can and can't be and which of their senses they can and can't use, preventing them from reporting anything of substance.
Every NFL fan should be lamenting these rules because sideline reporters undoubtedly overhear fascinating things. As former sideline reporter Andrea Kremer wrote in 2013, "You witness the grimaces of agony, the broken bones and torn ligaments ... I have seen athletic trainers take away the helmet of a seemingly concussed player so he couldn't try to sneak back into the game." These are all (sadly) routine NFL moments of no particular note unless we could hear what the players and trainers say, in which case they become fascinating insights into the inner workings of an NFL gameday, not to mention a moment of significant journalistic interest. But the sideline reporters can't do that, because the NFL won't let them.
This would be a minor annoyance if it weren't for the fact that most sideline reporters are women. It wasn't always this way; back in the 1970s, the first sideline reporter was a man. As Jim Lampley told Craggs in 2008, he "begged off" sideline reporting in 1977 and was replaced by Anne Simon, a "young, beautiful woman." In 1995, Lesley Visser became the first woman to do sideline reporting for the Super Bowl, and three years later occupied the same role for Monday Night Football. Look around American sports today and you won't find many male sideline reporters (some fill in for spot duty, but it's rarely in their job description). Due to the NFL's (previously) overwhelmingly male audience, you can imagine how the cogs turned in network executives' chauvinistic heads.
Unfortunately, the unknown external limitations on sideline reporters only exacerbate stereotypes about women in sports media. It is worth noting, as Paul Farhi did in The Washington Post in 2009, that female play-by-play or color commentators have been few and far between in American sports history. Sideline reporters have rarely, if ever, risen from the field to the booth.
Women sideline reporters are removed from the field at a far younger age than regular commentators, ostensibly due to an unwritten requirement that sideline reporters be young, attractive females. Pam Oliver will have her final on-field season at 53 years old; Andrea Kremer left the field at 52, Suzy Kolber at 48. Every current female sideline reporter is under 50 years old (although Michele Tafoya will turn 50 in December). The same cannot be said about commentators, many of whom are over the half-century mark, including prominent voices Jim Nantz (55), Phil Simms (59) and Al Michaels (69). John Madden retired from broadcasting when he was 73, Pat Summerall at 72 (although he commentated sporadically thereafter) and Dan Dierdorf at 64. There is an age ceiling for female sideline reporters that simply doesn't exist for male commentators. Pam Oliver seems to recognize as much, telling Deitsch, "I live in the real world and I know that television tends to get younger where women are concerned." (Oliver has made clear she does not want to leave the sidelines but was left no choice.) Erin Andrews, who will be replacing Oliver, is 36.
Aside from being biased, unfair and perhaps illegal, the NFL and its partners are missing an opportunity to showcase distinguished women voices. According to Scarborough Research, women represent 45 percent of the NFL fan base and one of out every three NFL television viewers. The NFL has gone to great lengths to increase these numbers, yet it has never seemed to dawn on the league or its broadcast partners to give women regular, prominent roles. There are about 40 NFL commentators across the major networks per year. If they were equally proportioned to their audience, about 13 of them would be women. Instead, they're all men.
These systematic biases lead naive observers to confuse limitations imposed on sideline reporters with limitations of female sports reporters themselves. This is part and parcel with the kind of sexist remarks often heard about women on television. As Charles Barkley once told Deitsch, "If you are an ugly woman, you have no chance of getting a TV job." In response to Barkley's remark, Meredith Perri of She's Game Sports encouraged female sports writers and reporters to "work on making our writing better, reporting better and leave the physical attributes behind." As far as sideline reporters are concerned, this is easier said than done: It is not Erin Andrews's, Pam Oliver's or Michele Tafoya's fault that they are told where to stand or what to report.
Last September, Sports Illustrated held a roundtable discussing, in part, the use of sideline reporters during NFL games. The consensus was that sideline reporters should have a reduced role in NFL broadcasts, providing little more than injury updates. This demonstrates that even many journalists aren't aware of the NFL rules, since sideline reporters can't report on injuries until they're given approval from the PR representative in the press box.
The cruel paradox is that some women have come to rely on those roles as a springboard to future opportunities. The most telling roundtable comment was a remark by Reeta Hubbard, the founder/creator of TheNFLChick.com: "As a woman whose dream is to be a respected voice of the NFL, I've always viewed sideline reporting as one of the introductory platforms to have a voice in sports broadcasting." Pam Oliver expressed similar sentiments to Deitsch: "I'm not saying these younger girls don't deserve a chance. I know I've had my turn."
Indeed, sideline reporters often do great work in the sports world when they inevitably move on. Suzy Kolber has been a regular studio host on ESPN. Andrea Kremer is a correspondent on player health and safety issues for the NFL Network and HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. After this season, Pam Oliver will be writing and producing for Fox Sports. These women could have been doing great, important work all along, but instead were asking coaches what they want to do differently in the second half. Women shouldn't have to wait until their sideline reporting days are over before they can ask the real questions.