Exclusive Interview with Sunday Night Football's Michele Tafoya

Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE

The Sunday Night Football sideline reporter sits down with DN and discusses the evolving role of women in sports, the Vikings, and the Minnesota sports scene. Today in part one Tafoya talks about women in sports, and how to separate being a fan from being a reporter

When it comes to women in sports broadcasting, fewer are more impressive than Michele Tafoya.  Ms. Tafoya has been in the business for over twenty years, and has received two Sports Emmys for "Outstanding Sports Personality". Over the course of her career, she's covered the NBA, the WNBA, NCAA Basketball and Football, and of course, the NFL. She is currently the sideline reporter for Sunday Night Football on NBC, which is not only the most widely watched NFL game every week, but usually one of the most widely watched TV shows, period.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Tafoya about her career and the Minnesota Vikings:

DM:  At what point did you decide you wanted to become a sports reporter/analyst?

MT:  While I was in graduate school at USC in Southern California and I was just constantly reading the sports page.  I had been a sports junkie most of my life, but when I finally made a decision, I was seeing people like Leslie Visser on the sidelines and ESPN had Robin Roberts of whom I was a huge fan and I thought "I feel like I can do that". I know enough and was skilled enough to do that.

DM:  You mentioned Leslie Visser.  I just recently watched the Nine for IX ESPN film "Let them wear towels".  It was stunning to me how the early female sports reporters in the late 70’s and early 80’s were treated and not allowed into the locker rooms.  Did you encounter anything like that when you first started in the business?

MT:  I know that, um, that there were sensitivities.  I can vividly remember my first time in a locker room.  I was living and working in Charlotte, NC.  I was covering the NBA Hornets at the time, and I think are turned back into the Hornets.  I was covering a Hornets/Houston Rockets game and I was asked to go into the locker room afterwards to get some tape and some quotes and as I went in the guy at the door shouted "lady in the locker room" so you already felt "they already know I’m here".  None of this bothered me, by the way, because I expected this kind of a challenge.  And then when I went in, I started walking toward the guy I wanted to interview and the player sitting next to him said "Let the man put his clothes on first".

I didn’t even noticed that he wasn’t dressed because I have what I call the ‘eyebrow rule’ which is I just looked at guys’ eyebrows to ensure they didn’t see my eyes anywhere else other than their eyebrows. So I hadn’t seen that he was completely nude.  So I said "Sure, sure" and turned around and dropped my eyes to the floor and then someone indicated that he was ready and then I interviewed him.  It’s a vivid memory because I guess you never forget your first time.  But I never felt harassed or unwanted or anything like that so for whatever that’s worth.

DM:  I was curious about this based on what I saw in that film.  Some of first female sports writers were physically removed from the locker room.

MT:  Truthfully, there are just some players that don’t want to talk to anyone after a game, whether you’re a man or a martian or a woman.  There are players who feel, and I’m not talking about today, but when I was first starting out, and I don’t know how much this has evolved, quite honestly, there were players who were uncomfortable with having women in there [locker room].  I think that’s natural.  Let’s, you know, reverse the situation.  They don’t let men in the WNBA locker rooms unless something has changed.  I mean, imagine men walking in while women are getting out of the shower.  It’s a privacy thing.  This should be your sanctuary.

But a lot of players in the NFL and the NBA have found ways to avoid it.  Many dress really quickly before the media is even allowed in.  Some stay in the training room and ice their ankles or whatever they are going to get treatment on so they don’t have to deal with it.  And then there are some who are absolutely fantastic and welcoming and open.  So there’s a range of reactions.  And I never took it as it being about me being a woman.  I understood and was tolerant of whatever their feelings were and I just proceeded the best that I could given those circumstances.  I wasn’t going to tell them ‘hey, you have to talk to me.  I belong here just as much as anyone else’.  I could have felt that way, but protesting wasn’t going to do me any good and I never felt a need to.  So it was purely a "I’m a reporter and I know they see me as a little bit different right now, eventually I’ll gain these guys’ trust and I’m just going to chip away at it.

DM:  That makes sense.  I never really considered the reverse, such as men not being allowed in the WNBA locker rooms; it would be awkward.  Initially when I was watching the Nine for IX film, it made me angry.  Now I can step back and take a look at it a little more objectively.  Sometimes I think as fans we lose sight of the fact that these are human beings.  Yes, they are professional athletes and they are paid a lot of money to be in the limelight, but they are still human beings.

MT:  Absolutely, and when you put it in reverse, there really is a double standard.  There are people who have argued to have an area where the players can come out of the locker room and speak to the press.  I don’t think they’ve come up with an efficient way to make that work.  I will say, however, that I have never, ever been treated rudely or unfairly.  Maybe I’m just lucky, but I think if you’re respectful of the person you are interviewing, under any circumstance, that they’ll be respectful back.

DM:  You had mentioned having to talk to players after a game and how sometimes they don’t want to talk, but your job is to get in there and get them to talk, especially on the sidelines.  How do you go about doing that?  Obviously you’ve had to build some rapport with them over the years and they are familiar with you.

MT:  Just chip away, chip away.  There are so many games I’ve covered and so many circumstances that I’ve faced and you just keep trying your best to be respectful.  Ask the tough questions, but ask them in a way that is not confrontational obviously, because look, it’s sports.  Ask them if they want to talk off the record and then honor that. You just have to chip away and establish rapport with people.  And that does take a lot of time and patience.  Like I said, every personality is different.  There are some players who were always happy to speak to me, under any circumstance.  Others are not as comfortable with it.  And still others are told by their coaches "you don’t have to talk to the media".  It’s a challenge and it’s not always comfortable, but it is your job and you just have to figure out ways to connect.

DM:  As you were speaking, I was specifically thinking of the game where Erin Andrews was interviewing Richard Sherman and the whole thing blew up and what kind of grace under fire you have to have in your line of work because you never know what they are going to say.

MT:  Right.  It’s important to know that you are not the story when something like that happens.  The story is the person you are interviewing and you might be stunned or surprised by their reaction, but you need to be thinking on your feet and listening very closely to what he’s saying and navigate this water to get the best I can out of him.  I remember interviewing Kevin Garnett after the 2008 NBA finals championship.  He’d won and he started screaming "Anything’s possible" and I just let him go.  Let him continue and follow up, but people asked later if it was awkward and no, it was great!  This guy was emoting an amazing display of emotion and I didn’t want it to end.  But that’s because I wanted people to see what this guy was going through.  So it can’t be about you as the reporter.  It has to be about the person you are interviewing. [ED Note: I was happy he won]

DM:  I grew up a sports fan.  I’ve followed all the local teams for most of my life.  How difficult is that to separate yourself from that? How do you separate your desire to be a fan of a team from doing your job?

MT:  I find it very liberating to be a reporter covering sports objectively because I found being a fan excruciatingly exhausting and emotional.  I was raised as a 49er’s fan and saw both ends of the spectrum there, losing, losing for so many years and then winning and just becoming this dynasty.  I think part of what attracted me to this was that I knew I could dismiss myself from that.  I don’t know how I knew, I just did.  And people ask me "Who’s your favorite team?"  I don’t have one.  That’s not to say I don’t appreciate when the Vikings do well because I live here and it’s fun in town when the Vikings are doing well and it’s exciting to talk about and think about the possibilities.  That’s always more fun.

And do I have certain players that are terrific and I admire their talent?  Do I have coaches that I admire as being great human beings?  Yes, yes, yes.  But I can separate that.  It’s just part of the job. You can be in the moment of a winning interview and smile at the player who’s just won because he’s elated and saying something humorous or funny or whatever, so you don’t have to be stoic.  I just find it very easy to just stand there and observe the game, the strategy and hope to God it’s a good ending to the game because that’s what we want on television.  You want it to go down to the wire.

DM: How difficult is it… it’s always painful for me to watch the losers.  To see the dejection.  Obviously it is easier to stand next to a guy who’s just won a championship versus the guy that lost.

MT:  Yeah, I’ve done my fair share of losing interviews and those are a challenge.  You do feel bad, but again, it’s the job.  You can use the right tone in your interview in that situation.  You have to understand and respect what that player or coach is going through.  You have to ask the right questions and ultimately, also what is your tone and your body language.  Those things go a long way.  Your interview subjects appreciate it.  All of those things matter when you’re trying to get the best answers out of somebody.

DM: As you’ve said, it’s not about you, the interviewer, it’s about that moment or that person.  You had previously mentioned the Kevin Garnett interview.  Is there one particular moment or person that you’ve covered that has been your favorite so far?

MT:  Well, when Brett Favre came to the Vikings and faced the Packers here at the Metrodome for the very first time playing against the team he had been associated with for so long.  This was on Monday Night Football on ESPN.  I remember being told "if they win and you get Brett, take as much time as you need", which you never hear as a sideline reporter.  So I was really excited by the idea that I could really go in depth with this.  It was quite a moment.  It was something that was challenging and thrilling.  There was so much going on in those few minutes that I interviewed him that I really haven’t forgotten that one and I never will.  To say it’s my favorite?  I don’t know.  The Kevin Garnett thing ranks up there.

I interviewed Reggie Miller after his last game in the NBA.  He and I had a relationship through working on the WNBA together really closely and it’s an interview I’m not sure he would have given to anyone except maybe his sister and me.  So that was really special. I mean there were Jordan interviews.  There’ve been so many other great interviews.  I’ve been very fortunate.  And then there’ve been some scary moments, too.  Like last year with the Gary Kubiak mini stroke on the sideline and covering that.  And again, having to separating yourself from "I know Gary, we’d just spent hours with him two days before at their practice.  I’ve known him for years and here he is suffering something on the field and I’ve got to cover it.  You must completely separate yourself.  It’s completely instinctive. You can either do it or you can’t.  That was a very, very intense situation.  I won’t forget that one anytime soon.

DM:  What advice would you give, particularly to women, who want to get into the sports reporting/broadcasting business?

MT:  I would say, if you truly believe in yourself, and you believe you can do this...don’t listen to the naysayers.  And I’ve always said this… I never went into it [the business] thinking ‘I’m a female sports reporter’.  I just went into it thinking ‘I’m a sports reporter’. No chip on the shoulder, no feeling like a victim when you walk in, no feeling entitled when you walk in.  You’ve just got to do your job and work extremely hard.  I think it’s very basic.  There’s no magic to it.  I think honestly it comes down to how badly do you want it.  How hard are you willing to work?

DM:  I appreciate the distinction you make about not thinking of yourself as a female sports reporter.  I think that's what those of us who aren’t in the business struggle with, and I’m talking locally here in the Twin Cities.  We have KFAN and 1500 ESPN radio and there are no women on.  I think that’s where you start to ask "why not?"

MT:  And radio is a really interesting one.  I got my start in radio in Charlotte, NC.  I remember telling someone ‘yeah, I’m going to be working in radio’ and their response was ‘oh, just radio?’  Just as though radio was some lesser thing.  I’m sure in the eyes of many, it’s not as glamorous as television, but boy did it teach me a lot.  I was doing sports talk radio in Charlotte five hours a day, every day of the week.  You’ve got to be prepared for anything and everything.  It is difficult.  And I suppose some people don’t find it glamorous.  I don’t know if I can answer that.  The ratio of men to women in this business is still not 50/50.  I’m just not sure about why more women don’t do it.  I couldn’t answer you definitively if stations aren’t hiring women or if women aren’t applying because they’d rather be on television.  I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know once you have a successful radio show, it’s difficult to knock someone out of their time slot.  Radio personalities tend to stay in their jobs for a long, long time and it’s difficult for anyone, male or female, to hone in on that territory.

Note: Part 2 will publish tomorrow morning.

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