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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 Prime Video host said that during her brief stint as a sideline reporter in the late 2000s, she came up with some halftime coverage — Laura Okmin’s reaction stood out the most for me .
First, Okmin works for Fox Sports, as does Thompson, and the reality is that it’s always professionally risky to be critical of a colleague. Second, Okmin conducts 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 founded in 2012. NFL reporting is her profession; GALvanize is her passion.
“The privilege of being on the sideline is being the 1 person in the entire world who has the ability to ask the coaches what’s going on in that moment,” Okmin wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “I can’t describe how long it takes to build that trust. Overwhelmed by the messages I get, I ask if this is okay. Not never.”
“Using it as an opportunity to train young reporters: There are coaches who don’t give a damn — they even apologize at the beginning of the week for it,” Okmin said. “You gather information in these conversations and you take with you – ‘he was looking for this, he hoped he didn’t see this.’ I mean YOU PREPARE for these cases.”
Okmin was responding to these comments in side 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. Sometimes I would make up the report 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 going to make this up.” Because first of all, no coach is going to be upset if I say, “Hey, we’ve got to stop getting hurt, we’ve got to be better on third down, we’ve got to stop turning the ball over … and do a better job of getting off the field.’ I will not be corrected for this. So I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just do the report.”
On Thursday evening I had a long conversation with Okmin about these comments. I asked her what prompted her to go public with her thoughts, especially as an employee of Fox Sports.
“My phone started blowing up like crazy,” Okmin said. “I started looking through all the GALvanize text groups over the years and they were all sending this clip and asking each other, ‘Is this good? do you do that I don’t judge. So I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. Then I watched the clip. There are all these young women who are just trying to learn how to do this the right way and they see someone they look up to a lot saying it’s okay to do this and laugh about it. I didn’t think about myself or my peers. We are used to it. Pam (Oliver) and I texted each other all day. We are used to people questioning our worth and devaluing us. I don’t think it affects us that much anymore. But I went into safe mode and started going to all the groups (in GALvanize) and saying this is wrong. It is not acceptable.
“If this had happened 10 years ago, I would have kept it quiet,” Okmin continued. “But now I feel a responsibility as someone who is trying to protect women and (trying to) help them find and use their voices. I have to use mine. So I ask, “Is this important to say? Does it deserve coverage 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 it, I would never do that. The wave of women standing up for each other is bigger than I’ve experienced in 30-plus years. And it’s not against Harissa, as strange as it sounds. Yes, I am so against her or anyone else doing it, but I have known Harissa for a very long time. I hate crimes between women, I was just so disappointed.
Okmin was not alone. ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath uses her social media platform to share very sharp comments about the ethics of such a statement. CBS Sports reporter Tracy Wolfson and Professional Football Hall of Fame reporter Andrea Kremer spoke up. So did ESPN Lisa Salters. There were many others considered and passionate answered.
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 a dehumanizing sense. I’ve interviewed many sideline reporters over the years, including the producers and directors they work with, and viewers have no idea how valuable they are to a show. What you see from the sideline reporters on the air is a small fraction of what they provide to the announcers in the booth before, during and after a game. They are in conversation with the production truck throughout the game. They provide a view of the terrain. During production meetings with players and coaches, they often prompt answers that become graphics or storylines on air. This information is almost always not attributed to them. It’s common practice that if a TV show takes advantage of the information, everyone looks good.
That is the potential harm of these comments. I’ve interviewed Thompson many times and corresponded with her professionally, and she’s a real person from my perspective. Liked by her Fox Sports and Amazon colleagues, she is a professional and talented anchor who shares the microphone well with others. Like many guests on this podcast, I think you can get caught up in pushing the envelope. She also mentioned a similar story on her podcast nearly two years ago. None of this is an excuse for the action or the light-hearted telling of it, though I suppose it serves little purpose in retroactively disciplining 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 spoke with many current sideline reporters. She and McGrath texted each other, and Okmin said she told McGrath that she wouldn’t be using her voice at McGrath’s age. Okmin also contacted Thompson after she posted and said she didn’t do it sooner because Thompson had her usual Thursday Night Football assignment last night.
“I feel bad that I didn’t contact Charissa before I posted it,” Okmin said. “It may mean nothing after the fact. But I will say about Fox, they have always been understanding of how I feel about GALvanize and are open about issues that concern women in sports. They know that I have a lot of women that I mentor and a lot of women that I try to help. They have never gotten in the way of this with me in the 12 years that GALvanize has been around.
“The hardest thing about it is you never want woman against woman,” Okmin continued. “It’s a really embarrassing thing because Charissa is in the middle of it right now and I feel terrible for her. But I’m talking about the role. Our title is sideways reporter, and it is important for any journalist, future or current, to understand what comes with this definition. I’ve had coaches call me today asking if this is normal, and I have to assure them it’s not – and that conversation takes 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 gain longevity. Building trust. Building relationships. It’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 terrible for reporters like Okmin, Oliver, Wolfson and others who are currently living the work and will have to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately, I can guarantee that some of the comments attached to this story will include the usual old side reporting nonsense.
It’s unfortunate – and it’s also untrue.
(Top photo: Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)