This article originally appeared in Sports on Earth, which publishes thought and opinion on the day’s sporting news.
As soon as Richard Sherman ranted into the Fox microphone held by Erin Andrews last week, blame was due to come her way. The criticism would be absurdly stereotypical, much as it was for Sherman. He’d heard the blunt thug. She would be implicitly tagged a bimbo.
Andrews handled Sherman’s combustion with as much poise as possible. She didn’t take him too seriously, a lead the rest of America should have followed, and she got in the one question that could clarify his fulminations.
But Andrews’ beauty has always made her a suspicious character, so much so that it’s impossible for many people to judge her work fairly. When Kevin Harlan of CBS Sports had time to think about the Sherman frenzy, he decided it was partly, and maybe entirely, Andrews’ fault. He called her reaction “drama queenish’” and suggested she may have provoked Sherman. I don’t know what exchange he was watching, but his interpretation reeks of confirmation bias about Andrews and the general inclination to see any man’s misbehavior in a pretty woman’s presence as a re-enactment of the last scene at the Garden of Eden.
Ultimately, Harlan’s reaction was too predictable to be interesting. So was Jeff Pearlman’s first take on his blog. (Abridged: “Andrews is the Kardashian of televised sports.”) A few days later, though, he retreated completely, beating himself up for beating up Andrews instead of pummeling television’s hiring standards for women. If you’re familiar with Pearlman, author of bios about Barry Bonds and Walter Payton, you know that he has strong points of view and almost never backs down. After the Andrews column, he called himself juvenile and stupid. He was right.
He clarified what he meant to say: “Nobody’s demanding beauty and sexiness from, say, Chris Berman or Joe Buck or Stuart Scott. Yet it seems that—bottom line—women with sex appeal have an inside track over women with fantastic knowledge and poise but, say, a belly.’”
Pearlman isn’t the first well-meaning male writer to whiff on this “don’t hate the player, hate the game’” issue. From the London Olympics, Jeré Longman of the New York Times carved up hurdler Lolo Jones for capitalizing on her allure and gaining far more attention than her American teammates who were superior on the track—silver and bronze medalists Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells. The Times’ ombudsman wrote a column calling the piece too harsh.
The real problem with the column was that it shouldn’t have been about Jones and how eagerly she played the glam game. It should have been about Harper and Wells, and what the media were saying about them by saying so little. Problem is, no one wants to admit what’s really happening: “They’re paying a price for not being as hot as she is.”
That feels too blunt. What else can you say? “Wells or Harper, the gold medalist from four years earlier and a lively personality, might prove more compelling, maybe even hotter, if given a proper stage. … Not that there’s anything wrong just being a gold medalist. … Or not being hotter. … Or not hot at all.’”
You have to be so careful with this conversation. “It is a v-e-r-y awkward thing to discuss and debate,’” Pearlman said in a Facebook exchange. “Difficult.’”
Still, he knows he shouldn’t have defaulted to ripping Andrews, making her the villain when, at most, she represents ridiculous standards set by others.
Pearlman said he was trying to stand up for the many women he knows who deserve broadcast work as play-by-play or color analysts and don’t think they have a shot. “The networks rarely/never seem to consider having women fill those roles. It’s beyond troubling to me,’” he said. “Furthermore, what the (95 percent male) sports TV executives then do is place women in the one spot that ‘works’ for the broadcast—relatively useless sideline reporter. And even in that gig, it seems networks place a far greater emphasis on physical appearance than reporting/journalism chops.”
For some reason, instead of engaging in a more thoughtful conversation, it ends up being easier to unload on Andrews, as if she has created a bad template for women in sports media, defining them all as personalities rather than journalists, willing to date athletes rather than keep a professional distance, and available for modeling gigs and Dancing With the Stars slots. I understand the concern, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair. No one has a problem with Michael Strahan crossing over from his mornings with Kelly Ripa to do analysis with Fox, and certain ex-player commentators have visibly struggled with the concept of objectivity. They have the playing credentials, but they do not conform to journalism standards. Yet we don’t think they damage the reputations of the Scotts, Bucks, or Bermans, who have more traditional credentials.
Regardless of the larger debate about Andrews’ place in the business, she did not deserve flak for the Sherman interview. I have no idea whether she is good at her job on a regular basis. I don’t pay enough attention to postgame interviews, and I would have missed this one if the clip hadn’t become the Zapruder film of its genre.
But when Sherman went off, she did not botch the interview and she did not provoke him. He had delivered a nearly identical screed to another Fox crew just before that, and he would emphatically call Michael Crabtree “mediocre’” in the news conference almost an hour later. As he talked to Andrews, he could not be stopped. And he should not have been. The moment was revealing, and a reporter had no business stepping on it.
Deadspin has already delivered a strong defense of Andrews’ work that day. Pearlman’s backtrack said just as much. Harlan might be prepping an apology this very minute. He should be. It’s not enough that he deflected accusations of sexism by citing Michele Tafoya as a superior alternative. (Pearlman used Bonnie Bernstein as his shield.)
The general concern is valid. There has been an alarming shift toward babes handling the news and patrolling sports sidelines
“People point to older women sideline reporters and say, ‘See! That’s not true,’” Pearlman said during our Facebook conversation. “But if you look, and see who the networks are hiring now, they seem to fit a predictable physical description.’”
This is part of a larger cultural sexualization and dumbing-down, and it’s not a recent development. See Broadcast News, released 27 years ago.
Instead of wishing away Andrews, I prefer to hope she’s still around 27 years from now, better than ever at 62. Right now, she can’t possibly shake all the suspicions that she is part of the problem for women in sports media. If she lasts that long, she will definitely be part of the solution.