A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Pam Oliver, of FOX Sports, was standing on the sidelines when she was hit by an errant pass. Proving that she is as tough as any player in the game, she worked through it — despite suffering a concussion.
In my five years as the sideline reporter for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, I was never blindsided by a pass. But I have been hit by a field goal, and I was once nearly bulldozed by a running back. I have also been spat on, sweated on, and cried on.
Why do Oliver and so many other journalists put themselves in such jeopardy? What really happens on the sidelines? And do you really have to be there in order to understand the complex game of modern professional football?
Up until World War II, the sidelines weren’t particularly interesting or important. There was far less movement on and off the field, as almost all players played both offense and defense. But during the war, when the rules changed to allow unlimited substitutions, Fritz Crisler, then head coach at the University of Michigan, found himself facing a much larger Army team. His smaller team might stand a chance, Crisler reasoned, if he could regularly send in fresh bodies. And so out of “sheer necessity,” he later said, he created the platoon system: the separation of teams into offensive and defensive squads.
(In his earlier days as a pre-med freshman at the University of Chicago, by the way, Crisler had stopped to watch a football practice when none other than the great coach Amos Alonzo Stagg accidentally bumped him to the ground. From that chance encounter, Stagg convinced Crisler to join the team — thereby launching a legendary playing and coaching career that otherwise might never have been.)
Platooning was reintroduced to professional football in 1950, and the sideline has been a critical part of the game ever since. Reporters have only been there since the mid-1970s, but they have good reason to be there: What happens on the sideline is a good preview of what is about to happen on the field.
The advice I got when I started on the sidelines was simple. Al Michaels, in my mind the greatest play-by-play announcer of all time, told me: “You are somewhere we are not. Be our eyes and ears.”
According to National Football League rules, sideline reporters cannot repeat conversations; they must merely characterize what they overhear. (Lip reading is a useful skill!) Some players or medical personnel will quietly give out information, but while teams are required to provide injury updates, the information is typically sparse. They need only name a body part that’s injured and give a return-to-play designation: probable, questionable, doubtful or out. So one’s powers of observation (but not speculation) must be keen.
You witness the grimaces of agony, the broken bones and torn ligaments. You watch dislocated shoulders and fingers get popped back into place. I have seen athletic trainers take away the helmet of a seemingly concussed player so he couldn’t try to sneak back into the game. And then there’s the dreaded image of the player who doesn’t immediately move after a play and is carted off the field.
In all these situations, the importance of the injury goes beyond the moment. A serious injury to a key player can change not just the course of that game, but the team’s win-loss ratio for the year. So these sideline observations are essential to understanding both that one game and the entire season.
On the sidelines, you also see both the rituals and the rational strategies of both players and coaches. In strategic terms, I have always wondered whether it is on the sidelines, preparing for the next series of plays, that the game is really won or lost. The notion of “halftime adjustments” is a misnomer. The adjustments start after the first series.
As for the rituals, you see the field goal kicker start to warm up the moment his team crosses midfield. Offensive linemen sit in the order of their positions on the bench, while the quarterback huddles with his coach and his backup to review instant photos of the opposing defense.
The mix of prayer and preparation that happens on the sideline is a critical aspect of the game. Marvin Harrison, the great Indianapolis Colts wide receiver, used to sit alone at the edge of the bench. One time I heard a television commentator (not Al Michaels!) suggest that Harrison was pouting because he wasn’t getting enough catches. No. Famously superstitious, Harrison always sat alone in that spot.
But those pine boards can also be almost as chaotic, electrifying and violent as the action on the field. I have witnessed teammates nearly coming to blows, coaches screaming at players, helmets being tossed, all while players reckon with rowdy fans and sometimes treacherous weather.
On the sidelines, the most prescient observers can also witness a most amorphous part of the game: a change in momentum. It is hard to quantify, but it is real and it is palpable. There’s a feeling on the bench. And by tuning in to that, you can tell if a comeback is in the offing, or if a team has pretty much given up.
In all these ways, the sideline offers a window into the chess match that is professional football. Yet networks like CBS have eliminated sideline reports. Seasoned reporters know better: If you want to get the whole story, you have to stay close to the game.