I get to spend a lot of time on the sidelines at football games. High School, College and NFL games have their own special appeal. The NFL now limits the number of people on the field, keeping most reporters off the sidelines. They don’t like the clutter. They want a clean look. College sidelines are usually buzzing. Lots of action, lots of passion. Many of the people charged with the duty of covering the game and reporting on it have an allegiance to one school or another. Sidelines in High School always have people who have a vested interest in the outcome. Lots of yelling, not a lot of reporters.
When you stand on the sidelines, the view of the field is magnificent, yet very different. You hear the hitting, you can see pain and exhaustion. The perspective is unique. Bringing that perspective to the television audience isn’t new. In fact, when I was at the University of Maryland, ABC Sports interviewed a bunch of perspective sideline reporters, all college aged, trying to use a college reporter to talk about college students. I was excited about the interview, thought it went well, but Roone Arledge picked Jim Lampley, then a student at Stanford, and a Don somebody who went on to a local television career in Philadelphia. Neither of those guys could get a job with the network these days as a sideline reporter though.
On any given Saturday, Sunday or Monday, the sidelines are littered with sweaty guys doing different odd jobs, security guards, poorly dressed reporters, the chain-gang in ill-fitting uniforms, photographers with all kinds of equipment hanging around their necks or perched on their shoulders, and some fabulous babe carrying a microphone.
During the Florida-Georgia game, I spent the first quarter in the press box, until I went to get some water and at least fifteen guys stopped me to ask, “have you seen Jill Arrington.” So I went to the sidelines to see first-hand what the commotion was about. It didn’t take long to spot the person who didn’t seem to fit among the regular throng. Arrington is a sideline reporter for CBS who doesn’t look like anybody else on the sidelines. Tall, with long blonde hair, well dressed in very tight clothes, Arrington is part of a new breed of television sideline reporter that the networks seem to think is necessary these days. The broadcast team is made up of a serious play-by-play man, some former player, and a striking female reporter on the sidelines.
Arrington, Bonnie Bernstein, Melissa Stark, Pam Oliver and Jillian Barberie are all part of network broadcast teams. Are they good reporters? Who knows? Most guys haven’t heard a thing they’ve said and women are commenting on their hair and their clothes. Is this fair? All could be fantastic journalists, but will never get the chance to show it based on the cosmetic aspect of the television industry. Nobody’s yelling “Quiet, I want to hear what Melissa is saying,” during Monday Night Football. “Great turtleneck,” is what’s being shouted in the local sports bars. Lesley Visser is pretty well connected throughout the NFL, but her choice of headwear was what garnered most of the attention during her reports on MNF.
A couple of years ago, Bonnie Bernstein sent me a tape, looking for a job as our weekend sports anchor. She was working in Reno, Nevada at the time and her tape stood out among the other applicants. Not because she was a woman, but because she was a very good reporter. I’ve worked probably two dozen games where Melissa Stark was the sideline reporter, first for ESPN and now for ABC Sports. She worked pretty hard during her ESPN games and is doing the same on MNF. You’d be hard pressed to see any of that now with the role the networks are asking them to play. They don’t seem to be complaining, so I’m wondering what is the point here.
Are these women gladly posing on the sidelines, knowingly acting as a distraction? Are the viewers getting any information? Is there anything the matter with any of this? Have the sideline reporters slipped into the category of cheerleader eye candy?
Actually, this could be much ado about nothing. The women on the sidelines are the next generation of pioneers, and will have to endure the catcalls and doubting that comes with blazing any trail. Network executives should be careful about how they formulate their hiring practices. The viewing public’s trust is at stake. If they lose that, they’ll never get it back.