The job is an odd mix of sports knowledge and sex appeal, journalism and entertainment. When done with an editorial bent by the likes of Jeannine Edwards, Andrea Kremer or Michele Tafoya, sideline reporting can be an invaluable service to sports television viewers. A pointed question following a tense game often produces memorable television; same with intrepid fact-finding following a key injury.
Of course, the gig remains an endless source of fascination (Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver was trending on Twitter on Sunday afternoon with a spate of tweets that focused on her appearance) and chatter disproportionate to actual air time, especially in the sports blogosphere, which commoditizes the images of the mostly women in the position for easy page views.
Samantha Steele has been with ESPN for only 15 months, but she's already been assigned two high-profile college football roles: sideline reporter for ESPN's Thursday Night Football and, more famously, replacing Erin Andrews as co-host of ESPNU's College GameDay on Saturday. She's well-liked internally (especially by producers) and has quietly grown on the job in a short period.
But the quiet ended last week with the news (first reported by SI.com's Hot Clicks) that Steele was dating Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. Predictably, the relationship caused a sizable disruption on the web, from mainstream places jumping on the story (Declared USA Today: NFL QB Brags About Dating ESPN Reporter) to a massive uptick in Steele's name being typed into search engines. (On Friday, the search term "Samantha Steele ESPN" rose near the top of Google hot searches with more than 50,000 searches, a couple of notches below "Jessica Biel" and "Sweetest Day.")
What happens next? Who knows? There is no blueprint for a high-profile sports television reporter dating a professional athlete in today's social media world, and Steele's personal life now becomes part of the Twitterverse. She should expect plenty of commentary such as this and this (the latter comment came from a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives).
"I suppose simply him being an athlete is now prime target material," said an on-air colleague and a friend of Steele's. "But she covers college football. Her ex played ball and no one said a word. I hope she just continues to crush Saturdays and stay above the gossip."
For its part, ESPN does not consider the relationship a journalistic conflict given that Steele covers college football and Ponder plays in the NFL.
"We do not comment on, or confirm, personal aspects of employees' lives," an ESPN spokesperson said. "Regarding any policies, we expect any commentator to raise any relationship that could be a conflict with the sport they cover. This does not fit that scenario as she covers college football."
"My humble opinion is that our personal lives should remain personal, but that any potentially touchy relationship should be brought to the attention of management," said Edwards, in an interview with SI.com on Monday. "I do not feel that as reporters we should be covering events that our spouses or mates are directly involved in (as in Samantha covering a Vikings game). If I were in this position I would make management aware of it and let them assign me as needed. Public perception is critically important, and we can't afford to put ourselves in a position to be overly scrutinized or have our journalistic integrity questioned in any way. I consider myself a professional who would be always be objective, but the public might not know that. Avoiding a potential conflict is the best way to go."
Steele, 26, declined to comment, but she took the right tone on Saturday by mocking all the hubbub around her. "S/O to all the grown men critiquing my wardrobe/relationship choices," Steele tweeted on Saturday, her first public comment since the news broke. "If it weren't for y'all, I might've forgotten how awesome JR High was;)."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend)
1. He does not bellow catchphrases. He does not hawk product. Unless you are a diehard fan of sports broadcasting, you are unlikely to recognize Dan Shulman if he walked past you in the airport. In his own words, he keeps things simple. He loves calling games, and then he goes home. His Twitter avatar is of a baseball field and not himself.
What Shulman is, however, is the best play-by-play announcer at his network, and ESPN has wisely signed him to a multiyear extension. The move is great news for viewers as Shulman will continue to serve as the voice of Sunday Night Baseball, and also do play-by-play for ESPN's Saturday prime-time men's college basketball telecasts with analyst Dick Vitale. The deal also includes Shulman's calling ESPN Radio's coverage of the MLB postseason, including the World Series. He and Orel Hershiser will start ESPN's radio coverage on Wednesday.
The one change coming is that Shulman will no longer do NBA games -- something he asked for in order to spend more time with his three teenage children in his native Toronto. He'll do about 75 events or so for ESPN during a calendar year, according to sources.
"I'm doing events I love and I'm doing it with people I enjoy working with," Shulman said. "I don't like making things about me. I like being part of a team. I guess at the heart of it, I love the job I do but I just want to do the game and go back home. It's not about being a brand. It's not about exposure. It's not about publicity. I just keep it simple."
Skip Bayless, this is not.
Whether Shulman and Hershiser will call Sunday Night Baseball with a third person in the wake of Terry Francona's departure to the Indians is still to be decided. Shulman said he does not have preference between a two- or three-person booth. He also suggested that no decision on staffing is coming soon.
"We have had some casual conversations as far as those involved in baseball, but as far as I know, we are not even at the short list at this point," Shulman said.
2. Fox NFL insider Jay Glazer landed yet another major scoop with his reporting on Sunday, learning that the Chargers are being investigated by the NFL for using "Stick 'em."
"The NFL is investigating the San Diego Chargers for use of a banned substance in their loss against the Denver Broncos on Monday night," Glazer reported. "During the game, one of their equipment managers came out onto the field with these little hand towels with this illegal substance in it. One of the officials, Jeff Bergman, actually saw it and tried to confiscate it. The equipment guy wouldn't give it up. Finally, they made the equipment guy empty his pockets and what they found in these hand towels was this illegal form of "stick 'em" -- a skin-colored or clear-colored 'stick 'em' type of tape.
"This has been banned by the NFL for decades and decades. The NFL is investigating and the Chargers are facing potentially very stiff sanctions, a significant fine or even an outside shot of a loss of draft picks depending on how many people actually were involved in this, how many people knew about this and how high up it went in the organization."
a. The average price of a 30-second commercial on NBC's Sunday Night Football? Advertising Age says it's $545,142, up from $512,367 last season. That's tops among all television programs.
3. Unfilled potential is always a powerful narrative and ESPN's upcoming 30 for 30 is one worth watching. Benji recounts the short life of Ben Wilson, a Chicago prep basketball star who was murdered in 1984 at age 17. At the time, Wilson was considered the best high school basketball player in the country and the senseless murder shook the city of Chicago. The doc airs on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET and features powerful testimony from Wilson's killer, Billy Moore, as well as Wilson's former teammate Nick Anderson, who went on to have a long NBA career. (Bulls star Derrick Rose wore Wilson's No. 25 while in high school as tribute, as do many Chicago prep stars).
"Ben's story is one of unfulfilled potential and we know that is a powerful way to connect with viewers, even this many years after his death," said Coodie Simmons, the co-director of the film, along with Chike Ozah. "I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and though I was young when Ben died, I remember crying like I lost someone in my own family. That's the way a lot of the community reacted and for a while, it brought people closer together and violence rates dropped in the city. Sadly, things are as bad today as they were back then and we're hoping that sharing Benji's story might help shine some light on the problem."
It's an excellent film, and worth your time.
4. Sports Media Knucklehead of the Weekend: We're backdating the honor this week to cite ESPN NFL analyst Cris Carter. As you'll see in this terrific New York Times profile of South Carolina kicker Landon Ard, Carter foolishly mocked Ard as part of his "C'Mon Man" segment for wearing glasses, intimating that he was on the South Carolina roster only to raise the team's GPA. The subtext was that a glasses-wearing nerd can't be a real football player.
Carter eventually apologized when he learned that Ard has worn glasses since he was 15 months old to correct a condition called accommodative esotropia, which refers to the crossing of the eyes. He should also apologize for lazy broadcasting. It was a meathead comment that top analysts at a network should avoid, not to mention Ard should be celebrated for his academic achievements.
5. The celebrities who appear on College GameDay's picks segment can be a mixed bag, but the ESPN show struck gold this week with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, who hilariously selected Auburn when asked for a pick between LSU and Texas A&M. Lochte's blunder became a Twitter sensation, with NBC Sports anchor Michelle Beadle leading the charge. Tweeted Beadle, with Michael Phelps-like aim: "I is Ryan Lochte. I swim fast. Me read notes. #goodtimes."
6. NBC Football Night in America analyst Rodney Harrison went bold on Sunday by declaring the Giants' Eli Manning the best quarterback in the league. When colleague Tony Dungy challenged him with Aaron Rodgers, Harrison said, "Rodgers, [Tom] Brady. Better than all of them."
a. If you were watching the NFL Red Zone channel Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, you were treated to some picture-in-picture magic with two touchdowns scored within five seconds of each other. First, there was Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz scoring on a 77-yard reception, followed by Titans wide receiver Nate Washington catching a game-winning 15-yarder from Matt Hasselbeck. Worth noting is the contrast in calls between announcer Thom Brennaman (Giants-Redskins) and Marv Albert (who was oddly low key when describing Washington's touchdown).
b. As part of the bold predictions segment on the NFL Network's NFL Gameday Morning, Steve Mariucci predicted that Jared Allen would have six sacks and the Vikings would have nine total. Remarkably, Minnesota finished with seven sacks. (Allen had two.) Not as successful was Michael Irvin, who predicted Mark Sanchez would throw five interceptions.
c.Scary story from Sunday about a Fox cameraman who was injured after being struck by the sideline camera cart. Thankfully, he's fine.
7. As part of NBA TV's excellent Open Court show -- host Ernie Johnson moderates a free-flowing conversation among analysts Charles Barkley, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith, Steve Smith and Chris Webber -- Kenny Smith was asked which players on this year's U.S. Olympic team would make the 1992 Dream Team. "[Kevin] Durant, LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] are the only three guys that would have made it and none of them would have started in their position except for LeBron," he said.
8. Rough conclusion to the Bucs-Saints game for Fox announcers Dick Stockton and John Lynch. Their explanation had everyone confused, including the announcers.
On the final play of regulation with Tampa Bay trailing 35-28, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman scrambled out of the pocket before completing a pass to Mike Williams in the back of the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown. Stockton quickly recognized that a penalty flag had been thrown. That was good. Fox then showed a replay and here was the broadcasting transcript:
Lynch: You are going to watch Mike Williams work the back of the end zone. He does step out of bounds. As you'll see he is pushed out of bounds. But if you re-establish your feet, you become an eligible receiver.
(The refs then declared that the touchdown was nullified for illegal touching on Williams. SI.com's Chris Burke has a solid explanation here.)
Stockton: Still ineligible apparently if you step out of bounds and the game is over. And it ends on a penalty when it looked like perhaps the Buccaneers had gotten within a point and an extra point of tying the game.
Lynch: And what a valiant effort by both quarterbacks here today. Josh Freeman fighting 'til the end. Smart play pushing Mike Williams out of bounds. Changes the play. The game ends on a ruling like that.
Stockton: Great drama at the finish.
Great drama, indeed. But no clear explanation for viewers. Later, on Twitter, Fox rules analyst Mike Pereria explained that it was not illegal contact because the quarterback was out of the pocket and the receiver can't come back in and be the first to touch the ball.
a. CBS announcer Jim Nantz cited the "stunning" upset in the Jets-Pats game. One problem: The Pats won.
9. Awful Announcing has compiled its worst sports tweets of 2012.
a. Author John Feinstein, who has been co-hosting a midday show on Sirius XM, has been hired by CBS Sports Radio to host The John Feinstein Show. The show will be heard on more than 50 stations nationwide.
b. Late Night With Doug Gottlieb? That's the premise of a new weeknight CBS Sports Network show (titled Lead Off) that debuts Monday at 11 p.m. ET. Gottlieb told The Oklahoman that the show will be "a mix of a morning show, a sports radio show and bits of other shows, including ESPN's SportsNation and First Take and CBS' Jim Rome Show."
c. Great work by Comcast SportsNet reporter and longtime Red Sox watcher Sean McAdam. He was ahead of everyone on the team's hiring of former Blue Jays manager John Farrell to replace Bobby Valentine.
10. Objectivity, thy name is not Lee Corso.