By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) “Sideline reporting is being phased out,” Pam Oliver told Richard Deitsch of SI.com, answering questions about her demotion to the NFL on FOX’s second team for 2014, her final year as part of the network’s coverage of the nation’s most powerful sports league.
The 20-year veteran Oliver will cede her spot to Erin Andrews, whom the network hired away expensively from ESPN two years ago. It’s unclear if Oliver’s comment is a veiled swipe at Andrews’ noted lack of journalistic heft or just some inside info on future plans, but any discontinuation of sideline reporting is currently not evident.
FOX executives seem aware of the easy optics created by the swap and the potential difficulties in justifying the elevation of the younger white blonde over the 53-year-old black woman with an established professional track record in the position. Their explanations, however, are undermined by a glaring logical contradiction.
“In the last five years we have made a lot of changes with the NFL crews,” FOX Sports president Eric Shanks told Sports Illustrated. “This is kind of the next move in that evolution.”
Shanks worked out a deal with Oliver that installs her as sort of a senior reporter and interviewer for their sports platforms, about which he then said, “I can’t think of a more respected person in the entire industry than Pam Oliver, and when you find out that Pam is going to be doing the interview, I don’t think you would say that anyone else would do the interview better. The move is hugely positive to where FOX Sports is going and building its journalistic chops and credibility.”
So that credibility-building effort is enhanced by removing the person he identifies as their best reporter from what is ostensibly their top job? Got it.
There are two things going on here: One is about reporting, and the other is about money and exposure. Without question, the conflicted comments by Shanks expose the truth that the position on the top NFL broadcast team is not really about journalism, and we knew that. Showing us heaters next to the benches or informing us of groin pulls is not exactly the stuff of Pulitzers – despite the inherently self-important tone endemic to football on television – so it isn’t really a responsibility that requires the well-honed skills and relationships of a trained reporter. As viewers, we’re conditioned to participate in the charade, accepting the third voice as a part of the conversation over three hours, just as we now are familiarizing ourselves with the officiating-analyst role.
But the millions and millions of eyes on the top national production make the job extremely meaningful, regardless. Oliver was recognized as the highest-profile African-American woman in sports broadcasting, a fact that reminds us of the massive reach and strength of the NFL. Her bad hair day last January was in fact important enough to be a major story in black media, forcing her to respond to critics and raising troubling concerns about racial double standards for appearance created from both outside the black community and from within. As silly as it all sounds, it mattered because Pam Oliver carried symbolic significance, no matter what she was actually doing.
But FOX needs to park Andrews somewhere that can possibly validate her acquisition, and this move helps promote her further out of harm’s way. To say she’s a lightweight would be taking it easy on her, as her level of discomfort has been obvious in any role so far, whether behind a desk or in a dugout. She just isn’t very good at anything and doesn’t offer much of a personality. One doesn’t have to be smart, interesting, clever or funny to generate pageviews, but the camera asks for more.
Meanwhile, FOX pays Tony Siragusa to stand in the end zone and talk about local food, tell us that the fans are loud or that the field is increasingly slippery in a rainstorm, providing all the insight of a beef sandwich. He’s not a woman, so he’s not part of the conversation. The rules don’t apply to him.
“I know that television tends to get younger and where women are concerned,” Oliver said. “Just turn on your TV. It’s everywhere. And I’m not saying these younger girls don’t deserve a chance. I know I’ve had my turn.”
Andrews should watch her back, too. Holly Sonders just got hired away from the Golf Channel by FOX, and she will reportedly have her own spot on the NFL sidelines this fall. She has longer legs, bigger boobs and even her own naked-photos-on-the-internet story. And she’s only 27.