Writing about sideline reporting, much less doing it, is fraught with peril.
Amend that. “Peril” is not precise here. More accurately, those who think the job is superfluous will never believe there is any value to the reporting gleaned from those who do it best, or to the real-time reporting on injuries and strategy.
Which is … fine.
But that doesn’t mean Charissa Thompson’s admission that she, apparently more than once, simply made up halftime reports when she couldn’t speak to coaches coming off or back onto the field during her time as a Fox Sports sideline reporter for football games isn’t immensely corrosive to my business. Thompson, a host for Fox Sports and for NFL games on Amazon Prime, apologized Friday and said she “chose the wrong words” during an interview but added she “never lied” during her halftime reports.
There is an assault on journalism. It is ongoing and unceasing. It is an extension of the assault on truth by powerful people — in autocratic governments, in multinational corporations, garden-variety jerks — who don’t want to be regulated or challenged or criticized. It is a sign of journalism’s ongoing power that it is under such relentless attack by so many.
It is working: Journalism is now regularly among the least trusted professions, and misinformation thrives. A lie on X/Twitter or IG or TikTok metastasizes in the collective social bloodstream, swallowed whole by many who don’t know better — and, sadly, promoted by many who do.
The best journalism provides a necessary counterweight to that fiction. It is the seeking of truth, and the conveying of actual events – how they happened, and why they matter.
It is especially difficult for the importance of truth to take hold on this side of the journalism street — sports. Those of us who’ve spent our lives covering sports understand: Many people come to games for a diversion from their lives for a couple of hours where they don’t have to worry about paying bills, or politics, or other uncomfortable topics. Watching a game with your ill grandmother or grandfather is a brief, welcome respite; getting together on Saturday or Sunday afternoons to watch your favorite team with your loved ones can provide a lifetime of fond memories. (In some cases, it may be the only time you speak civilly to one another all week.)
There are those who will never think of sideline reporting as serious work.
Most of those who do it, and who did it, take the craft very seriously.
Not ourselves. The work.
But Thompson provided ammunition to those who already believe that all journalists lie, or that we all write or report things just for clicks and ratings.
The vast majority of people in journalism love telling stories — ones that inspire, that inform, that enrage. We love being the griot, the town crier, the tribal elder. Occasionally, our jobs require us to speak truth to power, ask hard questions and demand answers — on your behalf, not ours. It may be hard for some of you to see those qualities, especially those entrenched in the “I never learn anything from a sideline reporter/I always mute them” camp.
Every game, whether for a championship like the World Series or Stanley Cup Final, or for a meaningless game between two .500 teams in a middling conference, has a storyline. Sideline reporters help flesh those storylines out.
When I was at Turner Sports, we were told every week, “Beginning, middle, end.” Begin telling this week’s story at the top of the show. Advance the story during the game. End the story at the final buzzer or gun. That made a good broadcast. Sideline reporting aids in that, when done well.
I did the job for more than a decade, mostly for Turner, mostly working NBA games. But this isn’t about me. This is about those who were and are excellent at it: Andrea Kremer. Pam Oliver. The late Craig Sager. Tracy Wolfson. Holly Rowe. And, back in the day, Jim Gray and Lesley Visser and James Brown.
Sideline reporting often is the only way for non-ex players — both male and female journalists, and particularly those of color — to be involved in game broadcasts, especially as studio shows are now almost completely populated by former players and coaches. Those ex-players and coaches also do almost all of the pregame interviews with current players and coaches you see on the pregame shows.
Thompson caused immense damage to those journalists, and, especially, young people just breaking into the business. Many of whom went to journalism schools at Syracuse, Missouri, Northwestern — or, my beloved alma mater, American University — to learn the craft and how to do it with integrity and passion, to not be a talking head. Women like Kremer, Oliver, Lisa Salters and Laura Okmin have blazed trails with their decades of excellent work from the sidelines and have dealt with way more crap than I ever did — about their appearance, their voice, their everything. Their very presence seems to raise the hackles of some viewers, mostly male.
Sideline reporting wasn’t my chosen profession coming out of college, and I didn’t pick it up dreaming that some of my end-of-quarter interviews with Gregg Popovich would go viral.
But once I agreed to do it, I worked, from the minute I landed in each game city, to find stories that could be weaved in between plays. That meant hitting practices the day before the game to talk to players and coaches, going to shootarounds the morning of the game, conducting sit-down interviews with star players when they got to the arena, sitting in on the pregame interviews with both head coaches, talking with people from both squads pregame, and mining all of those touch points for information and storylines. (I had the great fortune to work with play-by-play legends like Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan and others, along with game producers, who respected my contributions and would find time for me during broadcasts.)
And when it comes to reporting, whether on the sideline or on other news, there is no such thing as a “little” lie. You have the information, or you don’t, and if you don’t, you say so. If the head coach isn’t available, then get an assistant. Or a player. Or a trainer. Get somebody. It’s always on you.
The reaction from journalists to this has been so strong, because all that any of us who do this for a living have is our reputation. It takes a career to build. And it’s a bear to change once it’s lost.
(Photo: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)