Over the past number of years, women have made great strides in the world of sports media—gaining inclusion, greater access and increased respect. It is important to acknowledge the progress, but it is also sometimes necessary to realize that discrimination still exists … and not always in the ways one might expect.
On July 14, Sports Illustrated reported that Erin Andrews will replace Pam Oliver as Fox’s top NFL sideline reporter for the 2014-15 season. Oliver will now work as the No. 2 reporter—she will say goodbye to teammates Joe Buck and Troy Aikman and instead join Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch. And after that, she will be removed from the sidelines altogether and will work for Fox in a different capacity.
Oliver told SI that she will miss all of the little things, including inside jokes, Buck’s impersonations and Aikman’s “bad impersonations.” “I went through a range of emotions, but […] disappointment has passed me and I have reached a point of trying to move forward with some sadness.”
This season will be Oliver’s 20th—and final—year on the job, and she had every intention of being able to go out on top. Clearly, the network had other plans.
“To go from the lead crew to no crew was a little shocking,” Oliver admitted. “I said I wanted to do a 20th year. I expressed to them that I was not done and had something to offer. Again, I think it was predetermined […]. Two years ago it was determined that no matter what I did or did not do, a change would be made for this year.”
Some may expect to see discrimination in males being favored over females for sports media roles; however, women feel the pressure in other ways than just from men. Males in the industry, such as Al Michaels and Terry Bradshaw, are considered more experienced and more credible as they age. Women are not so lucky.
Fox Sports President Eric Shanks delivered the news to Oliver in person, and he assures critics that the demotion had nothing to do with Oliver’s age or appearance. “I think in the last five years we have made a lot of changes with the NFL crews,” Shanks said. “We have made changes to keep our coverage across the board fresh […]. This is kind of the next move in that evolution.”
The 53-year-old reporter is not so sure, though. “I live in the real world and I know that television tends to get younger and younger 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.”
Another veteran NFL reporter, who requested anonymity, said the following to Sports Illustrated:
“[Oliver]’s not blonde, nor is she in the demographic. I’m not naïve and I understand it’s a business, but I think that Fox did not treat her as befits a woman who has been the female face of their sports operation for the past 19 years.”
Oliver said she has had time to process the decision, and she realizes that the secondary reporter remains a high-profile position. “The No. 2 team is not chopped liver,” Oliver said. “It is an up-and-coming crew and a really good group of guys. They called me the other day and we had some laughs.”
Following the 2014-15 season, Oliver’s other duties will include long-form pieces, specials, and interviews. She’ll also continue her work on Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports. Clearly, her tenure and talents are acknowledged. However, if Fox Sports so appreciates Oliver’s abilities and experience, why would it remove her from the lead interviewing role on its most important NFL games? Fox may acknowledge Oliver’s skills and want to retain her as an employee—it’s just unfortunate the network would make this move to provide viewers with what they perceive as a more visually desirable candidate.
Bleacher Report’s Michael Schottey posted the following on Twitter upon news of the replacement:
Some may accuse me of saying that Andrews is not qualified or will not fill the position well. However, the question here is not about Andrews’ ability but rather of the motivation behind the change. The issue is the principle, not the person. In fact, Oliver says she holds no ill feelings toward Andrews. “It’s not necessary to feel something [bad] toward the person who is assuming your formal role,” Oliver told SI. “For people to pit us against each other is not necessary and not going to get far if the two of us don’t participate.”
And where does Andrews stand in all of this? She has nothing but positive things to say about her predecessor. When Andrews traveled to Minnesota for the MLB All-Star Game, she spoke with USA Today and said she had “big shoes to fill” in regards to the new position. “[Oliver] set the standard; she is a trailblazer […] She’s the first person to ask me if I’m okay and if I need anything […] I’m going to have to try to live up to that and that’s not easy at all. I can’t thank her enough for being such a wonderful example for me.”
True to her class-act reputation, Oliver is embracing her final year and remains grateful about where she is at:
“I will savor this year,” she said. “I will get my goodbyes to the security guys and the fans I’ve known for years. It is not even remotely bad, not even anything remotely like ‘Poor me.’ I feel like I have landed in a pot of gold at this stage and how it could have gone. My role has changed. […] I am lucky. I do know that.”
Differing opinions certainly exist as to the real motivation behind replacing Oliver. However, it proves difficult to look beyond precedence—ultimately, an accomplished and engaging sideline reporter has been traded in for a newer, younger model.
Football season is right around the corner. Hopefully, so is change.
To read more of my thoughts on women in the sports industry, visit this earlier feature story.