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The TV sideline reporter: Fruitful or frivolous?

Michele Tafoya  is one of the most prominent sideline reporters on TV on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

David Richard/AP

Michele Tafoya is one of the most prominent sideline reporters on TV on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

The concept of the sideline reporter was not some television executive’s lark, a frivolous idea fulfilled, but a direct descendant of tragedy.

In the aftermath of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, ABC recognized the need to be able to cover live news as aggressively as possible without technological obstacles.

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The network invested in hand-held cameras and the latest technology in radio-frequency microphones. The network was pleased enough with the progress that it eventually began searching for other ways to utilize the technology. One of the ideas that emerged from a brainstorming meeting among ABC news and sports executives was putting a reporter on the sideline of its Saturday college football broadcasts.

In the summer of 1974, ABC commenced a search to find “the face and voice of the college student.” They began with 432 candidates. They ended with two: Stanford student Don Tollefson, who worked on the broadcasts in the first year before going on to a sports television career in Philadelphia. And a University of North Carolina graduate student named Jim Lampley.

“We worked the first six weeks of the season on opposite sidelines,’’ recalled Lampley, who went on to a decorated career that has included calling 14 Olympics as well as HBO’s boxing broadcasts. “We were split up for regional telecasts at midseason. I got the A game, he got the B game.

“This was supposed to be an annual thing, to find the new voice of the American college student each year.

“By the end of the first season, I guess after the first season, the appetite for that evaporated,” he deadpanned. “But the idea of a sideline reporter was regarded as a good idea. But the easiest way to go about it was to keep ol’ Lampley on the air.”

Easy targets

Nowadays, those who fulfill the role pioneered by Lampley are often perceived by viewers as superfluous decorations to be judged rather than respected.

A Google search for the phrase “sideline reporter” is quick to provide such click-bait drivel as “The 25 Hottest Sideline Reporters Right Now,” as if any change in a hair color or the vague hint of crow’s feet could drastically alter the list in an instant. In the shallow world of television, attractiveness sometimes supercedes competence among viewers and executives alike.

Of course, some sideline reporters have been justifiable fodder for a punch line though the years. Eric Dickerson, the frequently unintelligible reporter for a brief stint on “Monday Night Football” a decade ago, was around long enough to be spoofed by Maya Rudolph on “Saturday Night Live.” Lisa Guerrero was overmatched and underwhelming during her stint on the same program. Erin Andrews is a magnet for criticism even as her career continues to ascend.

But there is variation and versatility among many of them, and the position, its relevance a recurring matter of debate, should not be endangered. To generalize or dismiss the genre is a disservice to those doing it right, and there are many, including an impressive number of accomplished women in high-profile roles.

When the star running back’s knee buckles or other news happens, the sideline reporter becomes instantly essential, provided they can thrive in the chaos of the moment.

“You need to have somebody there, and you need to have somebody who is a journalist and can report,’’ said ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. “Everybody loves the pretty faces there, but I’m pretty old-school about it; if you’re attractive, that’s a bonus. That’s awesome. But if you can’t report, frankly, I don’t see the reason why you’re there.”

Visser blazes trail

Restless for the next challenge, Lampley gave up the sideline gig midway through the 1977 season to pursue a career in play-by-play. He was involved in the process to find his replacement.

“It wasn’t stated, but you could feel it,’’ he said. “If we could choose an attractive woman, that would be a real plus.”

The choice was Anne Simon. She held the job into the early 1980s, her unfortunate legacy a grainy YouTube clip from the 1982 Alabama-Auburn game in which iconic Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant curtly patronizes her during a halftime interview.

It was not until Lesley Visser’s emergence as a presence on various sports sidelines in the mid-’80s that women were fully accepted in the role. Visser had already been a trailblazer in another medium; as a sportswriter at the Boston Globe in the 1970s, she had to deal with such indignities as being contacted by the draft board because it was assumed she must have been a male, or carrying a media credential that bore the words “no women or children allowed in the press box.”

Visser joined CBS in 1984 and went full-time in ’87. Her résumé reads like the most diehard sports fan’s bucket list. She has worked World Series, Final Fours, and Super Bowls, among many other major events. In 1998, she became the first female on-air personality on “Monday Night Football.” Her success is trumped only by her generosity to those who have followed her.

“I knew one thing in my heart from the very beginning,’’ said Visser. “I always thought many women had the attitude ‘it’s you or me.’ I thought, no, let’s look at this like a pizza pie. It’s not just one slice for you or me, let’s make it for all of us.”

Visser is cited as an influence and a mentor by so many women who have succeeded in the sideline role, among them ESPN’s Kolber and Lisa Salters and NBC’s Michele Tafoya.

“I learned from watching Lesley,’’ said Tracy Wolfson, who is a prominent part of CBS’s new “Thursday Night Football” broadcast. “And I’m not the only one by any means.”

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that those quick to acknowledge the path paved by Visser are the ones who are invariably praised by their peers. Even among competitors, there is camaraderie among those who do the job.

“We know that it’s not a frivolous thing,” said Salters, who covers the sideline on “Monday Night Football.” “We respect a job well done because we know how challenging the job can be.”

Notable sideline reporters through the years

Signature moments

Nor is it probably a coincidence that the same names come up time and again when this question is posed: Who are the most respected sideline reporters among those in the business? Tafoya and Kolber (who is more often in the studio nowadays) are the most praised, with Salters and Wolfson also drawing frequent mention.

All four have something in common besides the job description. They have memorable examples of thriving in chaotic circumstances. Kolber’s is the most awkward, and probably the most infamous. During a December 2003 matchup between the Jets and Patriots, she was interviewing Jets legend Joe Namath, who had been celebrating with former teammates for much of the night.

Rather than answer her question, Namath countered with a request: “I want to kiss you.”

Kolber parried with a chuckle and a “Thanks, Joe.” It was the perfect, disarming response.

“It’s very funny, it never goes away,’’ said Kolber, who never spoke publicly about the situation until last year. “It’s a cultural thing. All the people who really knew me, know me, know it wasn’t any big deal. People who don’t know me were like, oh my gosh, are you OK? Well, yeah, he didn’t do anything.

“It was just an awkward moment on national TV. The whole thing was never such a big deal for me.”

Salters was the sideline reporter during the Seahawks’ controversial victory over the Packers in September 2012, when two replacement officials made different calls on the game-ending Hail Mary pass.

Wolfson? She sprang into action when the lights went out in New Orleans during Super Bowl XLVII.

“I wasn’t really supposed to be on the sidelines,” she said. “I was doing pregame and postgame basically for our sports network. So I was in the green room with our pregame and halftime crew just watching the game like a fan.

“We weren’t even supposed to go out on the field. I didn’t have a microphone. I was not part of the Super Bowl. The joke was, you’re only getting on if the lights go out.

“I turned around to my sideline producer and said, ‘I think we’re going to have to work now.’ We jumped up, ran out on the field, and we just worked. There’s a rush. I want to get the information.”

Tafoya found herself in a similar — and even more troubling — situation last November, when Texans coach Gary Kubiak collapsed on the sideline right before halftime of a game with the Colts. Tafoya raced into action, but respectfully.

“You need to have a journalistic compass that tells you what to do and how to do it,’’ she said. “We were aggressive, but I think we were also respectful. That was very important to me, too.’’

“Two days earlier, we were all sitting in a meeting shooting the breeze with Gary about his team. This is a human being that we all know and respect.

“Tone matters as well. We really, really wanted to be careful how we covered it. Experience probably trumps everything else.”

It’s conspicuous that such praise does not come to Andrews, the Fox Sports reporter and soon-to-be “Dancing With The Stars” co-host who was widely criticized for the way she handled Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s rant about 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in the aftermath of last season’s NFC Championship game.

Andrews seemed to shrink from the moment, asking just one question before awkwardly sending it back to the broadcast booth. Fox did not fulfill our requests to speak to Andrews, who is replacing Pam Oliver on the No. 1 broadcast team this season. But Andrews explained her reaction during a podcast with Grantland’s Bill Simmons in February.

“I wasn’t freaked out,” she said. “I wanted to chest-bump the dude I was so jacked up.

“I was like, this is going to blow up. And my phone is [buzzing]. I was like, oh no.

“I sat there hoping I did the right thing. I knew all the blogs and all the people — I didn’t know ‘The Today Show’ — would be weighing in. That’s what I was worried about, not him. Everybody does think they can do it better, and they have no idea.”

Oliver says the game has changed.

“It’s not difficult to notice that the new on-air people there are all young, blond, and hot,” she told Essence magazine and SI.com. “That’s not to say that Erin isn’t capable. I think she’s very capable.’’

Oliver, 53, said age might have been a factor in her demotion. “The business is very demographic-oriented,” she said.

Rethinking the role

When popular sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein left CBS in 2006, her departure spurred a larger change: The network decided to eliminate the role from its football broadcasts altogether. Sean McManus, then the president of CBS Sports, explained at the time that the information provided by a sideline reporter was often redundant with the insight a color analyst provided.

“To hear a sideline reporter say something the analyst also has access to, we thought that takes away from the overall presentation,’’ he said then. “If I want to hear a perspective on the game, I’d prefer to hear it from Phil Simms.”

Now the chairman of CBS Sports, McManus has a new bauble in the network’s collection of live sporting events: the Thursday night broadcast, which debuts next week. CBS is presenting the Thursday night games as can’t-miss events and trying to give them the production value and sheen of a playoff game.

One of the ways it is doing so? Adding Wolfson as the sideline reporter.

“In life, you learn things and you change,” said McManus when asked recently about the shift in philosophy. “With ‘Thursday Night Football,’ our approach was to look at everything with a brand-new perspective.

“We look at it as being a playoff-caliber production every night. In the playoffs, we’ve always had sideline reporters. Since we thought this was going to be the ultimate production for CBS, we figured we should probably go back to having them.”

McManus is not alone in reconsidering the usefulness of the role. In July 2009, Lampley told Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs that he’d eliminate the position entirely.

“All the injury-related information, all the other sideline stuff, you can do that just by having somebody on the sideline who’s not on the air, reporting directly to the truck,’’ he said then. “I just don’t see what it adds.”

Forty years after he pioneered the role, and five years after he condemned it, he says he again recognizes what it means and who does it well.

“There are three or four that I can name off the top of my head that if I’m watching the game in a more or less casual way,’’ he said. “And the commentary from the booth is washing over me as is a common part of the experience. And suddenly we go down to Andrea Kremer. Or Suzy Kolber. Or Michele Tafoya, and there are others that I’m leaving out here — Bonnie Bernstein was good — and when they throw down to that person on the sideline, instantly I’m alert and looking up and saying, ‘I’m going to pay attention to what she has to say.’

“Because they have proven to me that they were good, that they understood what they were doing, and that they were going to use that exposure on the air to provide something interesting. That’s what the role is meant to do.”

Related coverage:

WEEI’s Kirk Minihane takes a shot at Erin Andrews

Martha Coakley rips WEEI host for Erin Andrews rant

Finn: Kirk Minihane too good for low-brow antics

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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