Of all the reactions to Charissa Thompson’s comments on a recent episode of the “Pardon My Take” podcast — in which the Fox Sports and NFL on Prime Video host said that during her short stint as a sideline reporter in the late 2000s, she made up some halftime reports — the reaction from Laura Okmin stood out the most to me.
First, Okmin works for Fox Sports, as Thompson does, and the reality is it’s always risky professionally to be critical of a colleague. Second, Okmin runs boot camps, workshops and coaching for women working in sports (and who want to work in sports one day) as part of GALvanize, an organization she formed in 2012. NFL sideline reporting is her profession; GALvanize is her passion.
“THE privilege of a sideline role is being the 1 person in the entire world who has the opportunity to ask coaches what’s happening in that moment,” Okmin wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “I can’t express the amount of time it takes to build that trust. Devastated w/the texts I’m getting asking if this is ok. No. Never.”
“Using as an opportunity to teach young reporters: There’s coaches who don’t give anything- even apologize early in wk for it,” Okmin said. “You gather info in those conversations & take w/you -‘he was looking for this, hoped he didn’t see that.’ My point being YOU PREPARE for these instances.”
Okmin was responding to these comments on sideline reports from Thompson on “Pardon My Take”:
“I’ve said this before, so I haven’t been fired for saying it, but I’ll say it again. I would make up the report sometimes, because … the coach wouldn’t come out at halftime, or it was too late and I didn’t want to screw up the report. So I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make this up.’ Because first of all, no coach is gonna get mad if I say, ‘Hey, we need to stop hurting ourselves, we need to be better on third down, we need to stop turning the ball over … and do a better job of getting off the field.’ They’re not gonna correct me on that. So I’m like, ‘It’s fine, I’ll just make up the report.’”
On Thursday night I had a long conversation with Okmin about those comments. I asked her what prompted her to go public with her thoughts, especially as a Fox Sports employee.
“My phone started blowing up like crazy,” Okmin said. “I started looking at all the GALvanize text groups over the years, and they were all sending that clip around and asking each other, ‘Is this OK? Do you do this? I’m not judging.’ So I’m trying to figure out what is going on. Then I watched the clip. There are all of these young women who are just trying to learn how to do this the right way and they see someone who they look up to very much say it’s OK to do this and laughing about it. I wasn’t thinking about me or about my peers. We’re used to this. Pam (Oliver) and I have been texting all day. We’re used to people questioning our worth and devaluing us. I don’t think that hits us as much anymore. But I went into protective mode and started reaching out to all the groups (at GALvanize) and saying this is not OK. It’s not acceptable.
“If this would have happened 10 years ago, I would have kept it quiet,” Okmin continued. “But I feel a responsibility now as someone who tries to champion women and (tries) to help them find and use their voices. I have to use mine. So I ask, ‘Is this important to say? Is this worth a repercussion if I say it?’ In this case, I knew it was important to say something.
“I didn’t learn to use my voice until I was 40. So I see these 20- and 30-year-old women posting their feelings on social media about this, I would have never done that. The wave of women standing up for each other is larger than I have ever experienced in 30-plus years. And it’s not against Charissa, as weird as that might sound. Yes, I’m so against her or anyone doing it, but I’ve known Charissa a very long time. I hate woman-on-woman crime, I was just so disappointed.”
Okmin wasn’t alone. ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath used her social media platform to share very pointed comments on the ethics of such a statement. CBS Sports reporter Tracy Wolfson and Pro Football Hall of Fame reporter Andrea Kremer spoke out. So did ESPN’s Lisa Salters. There were plenty of other thoughtful and passionate responses.
Where the comments are particularly damaging, as Okmin pointed out, is that so many sports viewers still see sideline reporters in 2023 as useless or in dehumanizing terms. I’ve interviewed many sideline reporters over the years, including the producers and directors they work with, and the viewing public has no idea how valuable they are to a broadcast. What you see from sideline reporters on the air is a fraction of what they provide the booth announcers before, during and after a game. They are on the talk-back with the production truck all game long. They provide eyes on the field. During production meetings with players and coaches, they often prompt answers that turn into graphics or on-air storylines. That information almost always isn’t credited to them. It’s an accepted practice that if the telecast benefits from the information, everyone looks good.
That’s the potential damage from these comments. I have interviewed Thompson many times and corresponded with her professionally, and she’s a genuine person from my perspective. She’s well liked by her Fox Sports and Amazon colleagues, a professional and talented host who shares the microphone well with others. Like many guests on that podcast, I think you can get caught up pushing the envelope. She also mentioned a similar story on her podcast nearly two years ago. None of that is to excuse the action or the telling of it so flippantly, though I think it serves little purpose to retroactively discipline her years later.
A spokesperson for Amazon’s NFL on Prime Video declined to comment. Fox Sports also declined to comment.
Okmin said she spent much of Thursday interacting with women in the business, and she spoke to many current sideline reporters. She and McGrath texted, and Okmin said she told McGrath she would have not used her voice at McGrath’s age. Okmin also reached out to Thompson after she posted and said she only had not done so earlier because Thompson had her usual “Thursday Night Football” assignment last night.
“I feel bad about not reaching out to Charissa before posting it,” Okmin said. “It might not mean anything after the fact. But I will say about Fox they have always been understanding about how I feel about GALvanize and speaking out on matters that pertain to women in sports. They know I have a lot of women who I mentor and a lot of women who I try to help. They have never gotten in the way of that with me in the 12 years GALvanize has been around.
“The hardest thing about this is you never want it to be woman against woman,” Okmin continued. “It’s a really uncomfortable thing because Charissa is in the middle of it right now, and I do feel horrible for her. But I’m speaking about the role. Our title is sideline reporter, and it’s important for any journalist, upcoming or current, to understand what comes with that definition. I’ve had coaches call me today and ask if that’s common, and I have to assure them it is not — and that conversation sets us back. It’s really competitive to get here and harder to stay here, but when you do it the right way, that’s where you earn the longevity. Building trust. Building relationships. That’s the difference between a sweet gig and a career. I just want every young woman and man who wants to pursue this career to understand that this is not the way.”
I come away from the whole thing feeling awful for reporters such as Okmin, Oliver, Wolfson and others who are currently living the job and will have to deal with the fallout. Sadly, I can guarantee some of the comments attached to this story will feature the usual old nonsense about sideline reporting.
It’s a shame — and it’s also untrue.
(Top photo: Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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