For Pam Oliver, watching Sunday afternoon football as a kid was as much a family tradition as going to church. As an adult, she found her way to the gridiron, becoming one of the most well-regarded sports broadcasters in the industry. But this July, in a development that shocked the sports world, SI.com revealed that Fox Sports was pulling the plug on 53-year-old Oliver’s sideline gig, replacing her with Erin Andrews, 36, a former ESPN reporter and Dancing With the Stars host. The backlash was swift and loud. Fox execs were charged with ageism and racism and accused of valuing perkiness over experience. Despite scores of media requests in the wake of the revelation, Oliver remained mum. Now the veteran journalist gives her side of the story.
Even before my bosses told me what was going on, there had been rumblings that my days as a sideline reporter were coming to an end. Two years earlier, Fox Sports had hired Erin Andrews, a high-profile side-line reporter from ESPN, and I knew they hadn’t brought her on just to be a benchwarmer. Colleagues, and even coaches and players, would come up to me and say things like, “Boy, you’re handling this well. You’re really a class act.” But I let the rumors roll off my back. Without official confirmation about a change in my position, I decided I was going to do my work like I always had. Still, I was humiliated.
My bosses finally called a meeting in April. One was in New York City, the other was in Los Angeles, and they both flew to Atlanta. It showed a lot of respect that they chose to meet with me in person instead of delivering the news through my agent. They could have done all this without ever looking me in the eye. Still, it wasn’t an easy conversation. It took a while, but eventually it got down to them saying they wanted to “change direction within the company.” They told me they’d like me to work on Fox Sports 1 (the fledgling secondary cable sports channel Fox launched in 2013) to help give FS1 more reporting credibility. They wanted me to work primarily on specials and long-form stories, but I told them I still wanted to do sideline reporting. It was important to me to have a twentieth season—to end on 19 is wack! I wanted 20.
Eventually my bosses agreed to give me a final year on the sidelines, but they told me I’d no longer be working with the network’s “A” crew (which includes seasoned announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman). The three of us have been a unit for a decade and suddenly we were being split up. That was very difficult to hear. Even so, I kept my composure during the meeting. When we said our good-byes, there were hugs all around. I thought I’d handled it pretty well, but when I left the restaurant, I got into my car and noticed my hands were shaking. I was like, Okay, that hurt.
On my way home, I called my husband and told him what had happened. Then I stopped to pick up something for dinner. I’m usually very focused when I go food shopping. Instead, I remember walking aimlessly through the aisles not knowing where the rice was. I couldn’t maneuver the freaking grocery store! I was in shock.
Once the changes were announced, people started talking. Some asked, “Do you think it had something to do with your race?” No. I definitely do not. Others asked, “Does it have something to do with your age?” Well, maybe. The business is very demographic-oriented. As one executive said to me, Fox Sports will look radically different in the coming years. I assume that means they want to look younger. It’s not difficult to notice that the new on-air people there are all young, blond and “hot.” That’s not to say that Erin isn’t capable. I think she’s very capable. She’s also popular on Twitter and social media, so I can see how that would also make her highly sought after. Still, covering the NFL is a big deal. Stations like ABC and NBC entrust their programming to veterans. So when people talk about all networks making a turn to a particular type of girl on the sidelines, it doesn’t hold water.
For a while I was lost in sadness. I kept thinking, What am I going to do on Sundays? One afternoon I decided to turn on the TV to get out of my head. One of my favorite movies, Apollo 13, was on. At once, I was lost in the drama of it, boohooing out of control. I’ve seen that movie dozens of times and for some reason the ending, in which the astronauts return to earth safely, was not clear to me. I called my husband in tears and was like, “I don’t know if they’re going to make it back!” He said, “Girl, let it out!” It was ridiculous. When I look back at that time, I feel embarrassed that I was so emotional. Among my friends I’m the tough girl. I am not a crier. But I realize I was in mourning. I had to let it go.
Two weeks after meeting with my bosses, I woke up and said to myself, Okay, I’m supposed to learn something from this. My first step was to get back to my routine. Every morning I begin my day the same way: meditate, pray and affirm. I call it my “P.O. Power Hour” because it fortifies me. Through all the changes, I had abandoned the things that help me the most, and then I was wondering why I was so miserable! So I reinstated my Power Hour—I visualize what I want for my day, what I want for the big picture and what I hope for the world. Then I read the Bible until I’ve gotten the answer I need. With that, I began to feel better.
At times I’m ashamed of how tragic I was making things out to be. It’s just a job change. I’m not out on the streets. I’m not unemployed. Everybody wins: Fox gets its coveted reporter in the lead role and I get to do my sideline job for my twentieth and final year. I’m also looking forward to developing stories that interest me and delivering long-form pieces for FS1. That kind of work is like being in reporter heaven.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being on the sidelines. I love the ins and outs of the game. But I’m headed into this season knowing it’s time to say my good-byes. I’m going savor every moment.
This article was originally published in the October issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.