Michele Tafoya will work her 200th game on an NFL sideline next week when NBC’s Sunday Night Football airs the Patriots at Texans on Dec. 13. But when you ask Tafoya about that number, which includes assignments for ABC and ESPN’s Monday Night Football as well as postseason games, she still feels like a bit of rookie compared to on-air partners Cris Collinsworth, Bob Costas and Al Michaels.
“It’s a surprising number, but I still feel like the kid on the show,” Tafoya said last week. “Not because of my age but where I rank in the experience category. It’s a little surprising but no mark of valor.”
Tafoya turns 51 on Dec. 17—she brings up her age during the conversation—and it’s a testament to Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli that his broadcasts have historically used the sideline reporter position as a journalistic endeavor as opposed to hiring a television personality who occasionally practices journalism. It was the same with Andrea Kremer, who held the position on SNF before Tafoya.
“It’s sometimes hard to remember I am 50,” Tafoya said. “But I think it is a good question [why does the sideline reporter position tend to skew younger] and one of the reason I appreciate Fred Gaudelli, [NBC Sports chairman] Mark Lazarus and [NBC Sports executive producer] Sam Flood is because they do value journalism, experience, and they want to be able to hand something off to their reporters and know it will get done and get done right. It’s a role that gets overlooked until it is really important. I think the Gary Kubiak situation in 2013 in Houston was an example of that. That’s not the only example but it is an obvious one. It just needed to be handled right and I’m not saying I am the only one who can do that but I do know I have some unique skills and experience that allowed me to present it in a way that was right. It gives me an air of confidence that Fred entrusts me with this and putting me in situations where we know as a team we can deliver it properly.”
During halftime of an SNF-televised game between the Texans and the Colts on Nov. 3, 2013, Kubiak, then the head coach of Houston, suffered a transient ischemic attack, or TIA, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is briefly interrupted, typically by a blood clot or narrowed blood vessels. TIAs are often called mini-strokes. Kubiak collapsed on the field and was transported to a local hospital. Here was how Tafoya described it for the audience:
“A scary situation down here on the field as you mentioned. Gary Kubiak just now wheeled into the locker room. The Houston head coach collapsed and no one saw exactly when it happened. It happened on the near 20 (yard line), which appeared to be when he was walking off the field. He was attended (to), surrounded by medical staff. He was speaking, but he also looked to be in extraordinary pain. He could not open his eyes. His eyes were squeezing tight shut. It appeared again that he tried to sit up momentarily, could not stay up. They laid him back down. I never once saw him open his eyes, but we did confirm that he was talking as he was wheeled off the field. A situation that we are going to continue to follow. Very frightening down here.”
She followed that up with multiple, matter-of-fact reports, including an interview with Texans’ general manager Rick Smith after the game. “It was a very intense for all of us because we did not know what might happen once he left the field, and I was the one carrying all that water for the show,” Tafoya said. “But I think as a team, we did well in that situation.”
While women 50 and over do exist on sports television, the numbers are dwarfed compared to men, as is the appearance pressure. During her interview with SI.com last week, Tafoya cited her makeup person Audrey Mansfield as a valuable member of the SNF staff. (As a rule when people mention behind-the-scenes people in sports television, that’s a good sign about the professionalism of those people). I asked Tafoya why she still enjoys being on the sideline after so many games.
“The sideline is an amazing place to be,” she said. “It's exciting, challenging, it’s chaotic, it demands every ounce of energy that you have and you have to juggle so much mentally. It is a fantastic place to work.”
Tafoya cited working with Gaudelli, whom she also worked with on Monday Night Football for two seasons on ABC, as one of the reasons she has had long-term success in the business.
“What is unique about Michele is her ability to adapt to changing subject matter at a moments notice and still provide a cogent and quality report with proper tone,” Gaudelli said. “I think she performs her role better than anyone else.”
“No one I have ever worked with pushes me as hard, demands as much from me, but also supports me and champions me the way that Fred does,” Tafoya said. “He is the kind of guy you do not want to let down. We are trying to constantly improve.”
Her toughest interview over the years? The answer is not exactly a surprise.
“The obvious answer and even he won’t be surprised is [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick,” Tafoya said. “We [SNF] do all of our halftime interviews off-camera because we think we get the best results that way. Coaches are less concerned about what they say, they can swear if they want to. They will tell you what they want to tell you. We work to consolidate it down to what is most worthwhile to bring back to the viewers and I am really grateful that coaches are willing to talk to me in those moments, especially if there is a trailing coach on the road. I know Bill very well and have worked with him for a very long time but it is just not where he wants to be at halftime. It is difficult, and he is a guy who does not like to reveal a lot anyway. He is only concerned with the internal. He doesn’t care about the external and you kind of have to respect that. So it is sometimes very difficult to get a lot of out of him. You want to be able to deliver something meaningful, something important, something relevant to the audience and sometimes Bill does not want to give you that.”
Tafoya said she views the sideline reporting position as journalism, but she does not believe she should editorialize in her role on SNF.
“I do have strong feelings about things but in my role, I’m not sure that is the place I am supposed to go,” Tafoya said. “I will tell you that in Dallas over that weekend [on Nov. 8], I spent hours on the phone, all the way up into kickoff, trying to figure out how we could advance the Greg Hardy story, how much information I could get on what Greg Hardy’s rules were in Dallas, how is he being treated, is he being held to a certain measuring stick to be deserving of this second chance? It was a very difficult thing to get to. Do I wish I could editorialize? Sometimes, I do. But I don’t know that it is an appropriate spot for me. But I will say outside of that broadcast, NBC is very good about letting me speak my mind.”
On that note, one of the interesting things about Tafoya’s personal Twitter feed is that it’s very politically oriented. She’s been critical of GOP moderators, Hilary Clinton and many other topics. That’s something you don’t regularly see from high-profile sports TV people. Tafoya classifies herself as a “conservative person but I have some definite libertarian strains. I think it surprises people when I say I am a pro-choice conservative but that is the best way to describe myself.”
Her Twitter handle used to have NBC Sports in it but after using social media to promote certain candidates in her native Minnesota, Flood told Tafoya that the network was fine with her political advocacy but asked her to remove the NBC Sports part from her handle. She did, and has not heard from her network since (reason does exist in television—hallelujah!). Tafoya said she does ask her NBC Sports bosses for permission to speak publicly on behalf of certain candidates she favors, and to serve on committees promoting certain candidates.
“I am very respectful of that because I understand the ramifications,” said Tafoya, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in mass communications and holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California. “They will ask what I am doing and what I am going to say. It’s not that they are censoring me but they just want to prevent me from going off the deep end, which I am not because I am a fairly moderate person. They have been extremely respectful about it.”
Tafoya said the Sunday Night Football group talks a lot of politics at dinner and on rides back to the airport. It’s an every day conversation when the group is together.
“I won’t out anybody on where they land politically but there is more consensus in our car rides than you can imagine and a lot of hand-wringing and saying we can’t wait until 2016,” said Tafoya, whose sister, in an interesting twist, works for the Obama administration. “We talk about a lot. It is definitely an outlet for me because my husband hates politics. (One can guess Tafoya is riding often with Michaels, a well-known GOP supporter.)
Of all sideline interviews over the last two decades, Tafoya said her favorite coach to deal with is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whom she interviewed often when she covered the NBA for ABC/ESPN.
“He was wonderful and I miss him,” he said. “He gave me one of the great quotes of all time, and it was basically that his team’s heads were somewhere where they normally would not be. Pop was always great to me. I think we just had a mutual respect for each other. I always presented him fairly. He came up to me recently when we both were in Denver and said, 'I haven’t seen you in awhile. I thought you were mad at me.'"
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. CBS’s coverage of Alabama’s win over Florida in the SEC Championship Game Saturday drew an 8.3 overnight rating, the highest-rated college football game of the year. (The game peaked at a 9.4 overnight rating from 6:30-7:00 p.m., ET.) The previous high for a college football overnight in 2015 was Ohio-State-Michigan State, which drew a 7.0 overnight on ABC. That game ended up with 11.05 million viewers, which the Alabama-Florida game will top.
1a. The Big Ten championship game on Fox between Michigan State and Iowa drew a 6.0 overnight rating, beating head-to-head ESPN’s coverage of Clemson-North Carolina (4.8) on ABC by 23%.
1b. The eight-game Thursday Night Football package that aired on CBS and NFL Network this season (the rest of the games are on NFLN) was up nine percent in household rating over 2014 (10.9 vs. 10.0) and nine percent in viewership (17.6 million viewers vs. 16.1 million in 2014). The final CBS game of the year—Green Bay vs. Detroit—averaged 17.8 million viewers.
1c. CBS Sports’ Thanksgiving Day broadcast of Carolina-Dallas on Nov. 26 was the most-watched NFL game to date in the 2015 season on any network, with 32.5 million viewers. The game peaked with an average of 34.7 million viewers from 5:30-6 p.m. ET.
1d. NFL Network analyst Brian Billick on Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan: “Rex is under a little bit of pressure. I’ve never seen a honeymoon end quicker than it has for a coach because of the expectations in Buffalo and what they thought they were going to get when he came in.”
1e. Tafoya said among her most memorable moments on NFL sidelines were chasing down Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler after last year’s Super Bowl—he was heading off the field when she got him—and interviewing Brett Favre at the Metrodome after the Vikings beat the Packers on Oct. 5, 2009, on Monday Night Football. It was Farve’s first game against his former team. “That was an electric event, from morning until the end of the day,” she said. “I remember being told that if the Vikings win and I got Brett to take as much time as you want. As a sideline reporter, you do not always get that. That was one of the most fun interviews.”
2. Lorne Rubenstein has covered golf for nearly 40 years, most notably for The Globe and Mail of Canada, but through all the majors and tournaments and amateur competitions, he had only interviewed Tiger Woods one-on-one just once—and that was really a two-on-one with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. “I had always wanted to do a piece with him that would allow us to get into not only golf but also other areas as well,” Rubenstein said.
With Woods approaching his 40th birthday this month, Rubenstein made his pitch this summer. He told the Woods camp that he wanted to do a long piece on Tiger that would not appear in a sports or golf magazine. The logistics took time, as these things always do, but Tiger and his camp agreed to do the interview. Then Woods had his second microdiscectomy surgery of 2015 in September, pushing the story back. They finally were able to firm up a date on Nov. 15 and the interview took place five days later, on Nov. 20, at The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club, a restaurant owned by the golfer.
The result of the 2-hour, 23-minute working lunch—nearly unheard of access for someone as high-profile as Woods—was the most interesting interview the golfer has done in years, and perhaps ever.
“There were no ground rules set,” Rubenstein said. “In other words, every subject was open for discussion. I knew we would get into that [his former marriage] at some point and we did. When he started getting contemplative and reflective about it, it seemed to me that it was the mark of somebody—his kids were infants six years ago, he has had these injuries, he is coming up on 40—being very reflective. He said in the interview he has had time to think about things and is not consumed with playing at the moment. It was not difficult to talk about these things. He answered them quickly and I never felt he was uncomfortable talking about them and particularly how he and his ex-wife were partnering for what was best for the kids. Clearly that was the highest on the list of what was important to him.”
Rubenstein said he knew there were areas he wanted to talk about with Woods that would elicit productive conversation. As far as specific questions, Rubenstein said he has learned over the years to have a few ideas in mind and trust himself.
“I always told his people and Time magazine that this would be as much a conversation as an interview and it was and I hope it reads that way,” he said. “So as far as structuring it, I had a few subject areas I wanted to talk about but I did not know when we would get into them. I knew there would be digressions and we would come back to subjects. That’s just how conversations work. We just went from one subject to another.”
There were three people at the table: Rubenstein, Woods and one of the Woods’ communication people. Rubenstein said the PR person did not interact during the interview. The final transcript count, after hours and hours of transcribing, was 20,000 words, and about one-third of that made it onto Time’s website.
“He seemed kind of at ease with himself and where he is going,” Rubenstein said of Woods. “At the same time there is a combination of equanimity and intensity still there. When he talks about golf, you can hear his voice rise and that he really wants to get back. He did not seem to be resigned to not playing again. He knows he has injuries, he knows he is 40 years old, but he said if he can get healthy, he believes he can play top-quality golf.”
Rubenstein was a golf columnist for the Globe and Mail from 1980 to 2013 and has written a book with Nick Price and about Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion. Asked why he believed the Woods camp agreed to such a long interview with him, Rubenstein said, “I can’t speak for them but I would imagine they read my work. I have been a golf writer for, Jesus, almost 40 years. I love golf, I’m interested in the golf swing, the physicality of the game, and I could tell from asking questions of Tiger at various press conferences over the years that he responded with great interest with questions about the game.”
“I am at the end of my career,” Rubenstein continued. “I am 67 years old. So this is definitely way up there for me, and in some ways, it is the most significant interview I have ever done considering the person, the timing, his popularity and what he has been through.”
3. Welcome to episode No. 32 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch. In this podcast, which is published weekly, Deitsch interviews members of the sports media about their work, and interesting people about the sports media.
This week’s guest is Deadspin staff writer Diana Moskovitz, who specializes in the nexus of criminality and athletics, and has been with that site since 2014. Prior to working at Deadspin, Moskovitz was a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald for nearly eight years. She also worked briefly for NFL.com.
In this episode, Moskovitz goes in-depth about her story that details Cowboys lineman Greg Hardy assaulting his then-girlfriend Nicole Holder. Moskovitz discusses her extensive reporting, how she decided on the narrative for that piece, how the photos ended up in Deadspin’s hands and more. She also goes broader on why she’s interested in crime and sports, how working at the Miami Herald and reading journalism in South Florida prepared her for her current job, what advantages and disadvantages she has working at Deadspin, her thoughts on former Gawker editor Tommy Craggs (who hired her) resigning from that outlet, her love for FS1’s Katie Nolan, what she hopes to cover in the future and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Lee Jenkins continues to unearth fascinating stuff on LeBron James.
• NYT’s Sam Borden with new details on the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes.
• Great work from Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News on the many tragedies of Bills DT Marcell Dareus.
• A Tar Heel Dead. By Juliet Macur.
• Interesting analysis by SI’s Tom Verducci on the David Price signing.
• SI’s Jay Jaffe on why Tim Raines, with only two shots left to get in, is a deserving Hall of Famer.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• A stunning Eli Saslow story about a 16-year-old who was shot along with 15 others in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
• The National Journal’s Eric M. Garcia on navigating adult life and Washington D.C. with autism.
• Arthur Bremer shot Gov. George Wallace to be famous. A search by The Washington Post’s David Montgomery for who he is today.
• The uplifting story of Invincible Iron Man No. 4.
• Via NYT opinion: “There’s been a cover-up in Chicago.”
• Via The Washington Post: On 60th anniversary of defiance on a bus, the grace of Rosa Parks: How she turned tranquility into power.
5. Awful Announcing revealed its Top 10 Sports Media Feuds of 2015.
5a. Poynter’s Ed Sherman on dwindling media access in college football.
5b. This week’s guest on the SI.com tennis podcast (with host Jon Wertheim) was Mary Carillo, who discusses conflicts of interest in tennis broadcasting.
5c. Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon on athlete-publishing sites, including LeBron James.
5d. UConn’s 86–70 win over DePaul last Tuesday on FS1 drew 193,000 viewers, the most-watched regular season Big East Women’s Basketball game in FS1 history.
5e. NBC Sports Group’s F1 coverage on NBC/NBCSN/CNBC averaged 521,000 viewers over 19 races, up 14% vs 2014 (457,000), and up 42% from its inaugural season of F1 coverage in 2013 (366,000).
5f. Canada Soccer announced that it entered into a multi-year agreement with Univision Deportes for all international broadcast rights related to Canada’s Men’s National Team home and away matches through 2018.
5g. Nice sense of humor by some SportsCenter producers.
5h. On Monday espnW will release its Impact 25 list—the group of athletes and influencers who have made the biggest mark on women in sports. This year espnW teamed with Marvel Comics to create a super version of each of the candidates.
5i. The Guardian is growing its traffic through live sports blogs.
5j. Love this tweet from ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert: