Dissed, dismissed and shivering cold: the terrible truth about being a sports sideline reporter
The first time he saw Chris Myers this season, Joe Gibbs did the same thing any reasonable person would do when confronted with a network sideline reporter.
He ran. In the opposite direction. Just as fast as he could.
"He's in his 60s," Myers recalls with a laugh. "And I'm having trouble keeping up with him."
Don't get the wrong idea. Gibbs respects Myers, knows the Fox reporter from his NASCAR days and remains one of the friendliest coaches in professional football.
That said, the Washington Redskins head honcho isn't a fan of the halftime stop-and-chat, a near-obligatory, rarely illuminating totem of the modern sports broadcast.
Reporter: Coach, what are you going to do in the second half?
Coach: Make adjustments.
Reporter: That's the story from here. Back to you!
And so it came to pass that Myers, microphone in hand, found himself chasing Gibbs across the artificial turf of Detroit's Ford Field like Fred Smoot scooting after Roy Williams.
Chris, I really don't want to do the on-camera thing.
Coach, I just want to talk. Mark Brunell is struggling. Any chance you'll go with Patrick Ramsey?
No. I'm sticking with my guy.
Just like that, Gibbs vanished into the tunnel. Poof. He later apologized, even considered writing a note.
Thanks, Myers replied, but no need. Comes with the territory.
"You get a truer sense of a guy's feelings if you ask questions right as he comes off the field," Myers explains. "And you do have to be respectful of the adrenaline flowing. It's tough for them to just turn that off."
Myers pauses, a rarity in his line of work.
"Rejection," he adds, "is part of the job."
As is enduring the occasional curse word. Suffering the more-than-occasional cliche. Dodging herds of irate football players. Enjoying the boundless public esteem otherwise reserved for meter maids and squeegee guys.
Such is the awful truth of sideline reporting: Beneath the lacquered 'dos and Seussian hats, the colorful sportcoats and figure-skater eyeliner, the gig is tougher than it looks. Thankless, too, for an occupation in which lasting embarrassment is one mistaken set of ex-teammates away.
On the plus side, there's always the prospect of a drunken proposition from Joe Namath.
"Having done everything from 'SportsCenter' to 'Up Close' to baseball play-by-play, I would say [sideline reporting] is one of the most challenging things to do in broadcasting," Myers says. "You have to want to do this. If you get caught up in the tradeoff, the amount of work to air time, it doesn't add up."
A little sideline math: Myers arrives at stadiums four hours early. He fills a notepad with story ideas, hobnobs with players and coaches and filters everything through more than two decades of broadcast experience.
If Myers is lucky - and the game is a blowout - maybe half his work gets on the air.
"I'm pretty good with that," Myers says. "Sometimes for a whole quarter, I might not do a report at all."
Reporters fight for scoops. Sideline reporters fight the people in their production trucks. Bonnie Bernstein, a CBS reporter and Maryland grad, jokes that if she pulled out a hair for every spiked story, she would be balder than George Costanza.
Before a December contest between the Redskins and New York Giants, Myers readied a report on Jeremy Shockey's contention that team morale was lower than the Mariana Trench. No matter. He began the game discussing glands - specifically, the puffy, protruding knobs beneath the chin of Giants guard Chris Snee.
"Doctors treated but could not alleviate the problem," Myers intoned, solemn as a state funeral. "He will be inactive."
The lesson? The game's the thing. And no man, woman or C-list "Baywatch" refugee in heels and a push-up bustier is bigger than a swollen, pus-filled lymph node.
"You're competing for time, fighting with promotions and graphics," Bernstein says. "There are only so many opportunities."
Make that limited opportunities. For Bernstein and company, 15-second dispatches are the norm; half a minute, Fox producer Mike Burks says, is an eternity.
Now finishing his first year on the sideline, Fox's Jay Glazer works with a professional voice coach.
"When you speed up and talk, your voice changes," he says. "You're trying to condense something. You don't breathe. It's a train wreck. It's something I've never had to deal with before."
A longtime newspaper reporter, Glazer was used to the print way of doing things: talk to sources, get confirmation, run the story. NFL sideline work is different.
While reporters can look and listen, they're not allowed to attribute anything directly (if Terrell Owens unloads on Donovan McNabb, a reporter only can mention vague "dissension"). Similarly, reporters can't stand with the players (most cheat by lingering behind the bench).
In effect, the league tolerates sideline reporters so long as they don't do too much actual reporting. During the Redskins-Giants game, Myers trudges along the back of the end zone. A fan takes notice.
Hey Myers! Your hair's messed up!
Myers runs a hand across his head.
There you go! Let's have a beer!
"You have to put your ego aside a little bit," Myers admits.
Sideline work can bruise more than the ego. Approaching Giants coach Tom Coughlin for a halftime interview, Myers darts and dodges through New York players like Washington's Clinton Portis does during the game. He wears two earpieces during every game: one to hear the broadcast crew, the other to cut crowd noise.
"They're made by the people who do rock stars and NASCAR," Myers says. "It gets so loud down here."
Almost on cue, Phil Collins blares from the FedEx Field sound system, a sonic assault that poses the question: Is it worse to endure the collective shout of 95,000 fans? Or what sounds like 95 decibels of "I Don't Care Anymore"?
"Minnesota actually pipes in crowd noise," Bernstein laments. "Domes are the worst."
Maybe so. But they're also warm and dry, conditions that don't apply to, say, Lambeau Field. Myers lives in Southern California. He bought a sturdy pair of Gore-Tex boots for this season's Washington-Pittsburgh game. Bernstein tucks a quarterback-style handwarmer into her hat.
She also owns two pairs of ski pants, mostly because chattering teeth don't play well on camera.
"Cold weather games are survival of the fittest," Bernstein says with a laugh. "And you can't see anything on television below the waist, anyway."
Something else you can't see on television: Washington kicker John Hall, booting practice field goals into a sideline net.
Oops. Check that. Hall is attempting to boot practice kicks. As the Redskins drive into Giants territory, he nearly stumbles over a long cord attached to the camera trailing Myers. Washington special teams coach Danny Smith turns crimson.
Take this wire and get it the [heck] out of the way!
Smith grabs the cord, tossing it aside like a dead jellyfish.
If he trips on it, I'm going to cut this [stuff]!
Smith's reaction is typical. If the sports world sees the media as a zit on an elephant's backside, then sideline reporters are the pustule's unpluckable ingrown hair, disdained and dismissed for being mean to Pete Rose.
Some 15 feet from the fuming Smith, Myers' cameraman has issues of his own - namely, the stadium security guards who keep sauntering through his shot.
"Chris will stand there," the cameraman says. "I'll stand here. And people just walk right between us. They don't get it."
With that, two local cameramen stroll past. One ducks. The other doesn't.
"He knows me!" the Fox cameraman says. "Just wait until he's trying to do his live shot after the game. I'm gonna kill him."
Sideline reporters routinely are killed by their press peers. When ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge created the position in 1974, hiring Jim Lampley and Don Tollefson, a group of college football writers attempted to ban the pair from the field. Three years ago, CBS's Andy Rooney touched off a minor uproar when he blasted female sideline reporters.
Pressed to apologize, the curmudgeonly "60 Minutes" commentator refused - but charitably noted that the men also stink.
"Some of the attempts have been so poor, [sideline reporting] has become an easy balloon to put the needle into," Burks says. "But it's not fair to lump everybody into that."
Dubious casting bears some of the blame: Imagine if Lisa Guererro and Eric Dickerson were the best known washouts in your line of work. Criticism also stems from the sidelinereporter's role - or, more appropriately, the lack thereof.
Following his first game, a thrilling UCLA-Tennessee contest, Lampley boarded a flight to Atlanta. Settling in, the first sideline reporter turned to a veteran ABC producer.
Did I do a good job?
Kid, as long as you're in this business, never forget: good game, good telecast. Bad game, bad telecast.
"That's an absolute truism," Lampley says. "Most of what I did 30 years ago, and most of what extremely talented and qualified people are doing now, is concocted for the purpose of putting the person on camera and establishing that they are there."
The position, he adds, is almost nonessential.
"You've got somebody with a microphone," Lampley says. "Well, what can they do?"
Good question. Guerrero was ripped for not knowing football. Her resume included a stint on "Sunset Beach" and a seven-page spread in FHM. Tony Siragusa's sole contribution to broadcast journalism seems to be informing Fox viewers that he would, in fact, enjoy a hot dog right now.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bernstein pressed Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams following a loss in the 2003 title game. Was he interested in returning to North Carolina?
Williams responded with a vulgarity, chiding Bernstein for listening to "the guy in your ear that told you to ask that question." He now coaches the Tar Heels.
"If I was coming off a bad meet in college, would I want a reporter coming into the locker room asking questions? No," says Bernstein, a former Maryland gymnast. "But if I had to do that all over, I would do it the same way."
If it all seems a bit confusing, that's because it is. As Fox's "NFL Insider," Glazer prides himself on nuts-and-bolts reporting. Yet one of his best-received bits this season involved Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking acting goofy in a pregame interview.
"He lost it like Hulk Hogan with Mean Gene Okerlund," Glazer recalls. "It was beautiful."
"I've had people say to me this year that they're kind of surprised to see me as a sideline reporter."
Burks stands in the control room of a Fox production truck, surrounded by switches and monitors. During a game, he can view any play from a dozen angles, all without turning his head.
Still, he likes a pair of eyes behind the bench.
"We're not trying to antagonize anybody," Burks says. "But the sideline is as firsthand a place as you can be. Why not go?"
Comedian Chris Rock once joked that insurance should be called "in case [stuff]." If nothing else, sideline reporters fill the same role. Stuff happens. They see it.
Case in point: A few years back, Bernstein was working a Denver contest when she noticed that Broncos receiver Eddie Kennison wasn't in the team's pregame lineup. She approached coach Mike Shanahan.
What's up with Kennison?
Bernstein went on air with the news, maybe the second-biggest scoop of her career. The first? Scoring a live interview with President Bush during the first Army-Navy game following September 11.
When the Secret Service finally gave the go-ahead, Bernstein had three minutes to prepare.
"I wasn't nervous until after the interview," Bernstein recalls. "I didn't have time. Sadly, I was thinking more about my icebreaker. But that's why you do the job - for being down in the middle of the action, the adrenaline rush."
Back at FedEx Field, Myers leans against a sideline bench, three hours before the Giants game. A riding mower rumbles by. Punters for both clubs are warming up.
"Oops," Myers says. "Let's get out of the way."
Myers walks to the 20-yard line. He takes a knee, squints into the tunnel. A practice punt lands a few feet from his mud-caked boots. This, too, is part of the job.
DISSED AND DISMISSED
During the first game to feature sideline reporters - a 1974 college football contest between UCLA and Tennessee - ABC's Don Tollefson approached a UCLA trainer for injury information.
The trainer promptly cursed him out. Some things never change.
From Lisa Guerrero to Jim Gray, The Washington Times takes a look at some of the more dubious episodes in recent sideline reporter history:
1) Kiss of breath(alyzer)
The scene? A 2003 game pitting the New York Jets against the New England Patriots. The occasion? The Jets were celebrating their 40th anniversary team.
ESPN's Suzy Kolber (left) asked Jets legend Joe Namath what the team's recent struggles meant to him.
"I wanna kiss you," the visibly woozy Hall of Fame quarterback replied. "I couldn't care less about the team struggling."
Kolber smartly cut the interview short, thanking Namath for the compliment. Namath later apologized and admitted to an alcohol problem, shocking absolutely no one who saw the game.
2) Poor, put-upon Pete
At the 1999 All-Star Game, baseball pariah Pete Rose received a loud ovation following his introduction as a member of the "All-Century Team." The applause didn't stop NBCreporter Jim Gray from trying to do his job - namely, asking Rose repeatedly whether he was willing to admit he bet on baseball and apologize.
Gray, that mean, mean man, became a target of national scorn, as NBC endured thousands of complaints savaging the reporter's lack of tact. Rose continued to deny he gambled on the game ... until last year, when he released a book admitting just that.
3) Oh, the humanity
The rumors swirled: Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams soon would return to North Carolina, a job he long coveted. Outside the Jayhawks locker room following Kansas' loss to Syracuse in the 2003 title game, CBS reporter Bonnie Bernstein popped the question: Was Williams interested in the Tar Heels' coaching vacancy?
Williams responded with a dismissive vulgarity, adding: "The guy in your ear told you to ask that question. ... As a journalist, that's fine ... but as a human being, that's not very nice."
Williams, of course, later took the Carolina job, though he did not release a book on the matter.
4) Nicole Richie said something dumb?
Fox Sports Net reporter Bill MacDonald really should have known better. Conducting a courtside interview with pseudo-celebrity Nicole Richie - first mistake - MacDonald asked "The Simple Life" co-star to name her favorite Los Angeles Laker.
"Kobe [Bryant]," Richie said. "Because I want him to have sex with me."
At the time, Bryant stood accused of raping a Colorado woman - and actually had arrived late to the game following a same-day court hearing in Eagle, Colo. D'oh!
5) "And by 'Ex,' I mean current"
At least her tenure was short. In one season roaming the sidelines for ABC's "Monday Night Football," former soap star/pinup girl Lisa Guerrero (left) looked hopelessly lost, never more so than during a Jets-Washington Redskins game in which she asked Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey about his "ex-teammate," receiver Laveranues Coles.
One problem: Coles, a former Jet, played for Washington. Which probably is why Ramsey seemed even more dumbfounded when Guerrero repeated the question.
Also receiving votes: Keyshawn Johnson wanting to "spank" Fox's Pam Oliver; Fox's Tony Siragusa dubbing Joey Harrington "not a meat and potatoes guy"; former ABC reporter Eric Dickerson taking heat for using the term "disorientated," an actual word. Look it up. Such is life for sideline reporters: Even when you're right, you're wrong.
Originally published in The Washington Times