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Michele Tafoya Is Center Stage on the Sideline

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Game On

One of the best sideline reporters in the business talks about how she gets the story.

A six-year veteran as a sideline reporter for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Michele Tafoya has worked in sports journalism for nearly three decades. Before the California native ascended to the Sunday night showcase, she was the first female analyst to cover UNC Charlotte men’s basketball games. She’s also covered everything from Super Bowls to Olympic rhythmic gymnastics during stints at CBS Sports, ABC Sports, and ESPN. I caught up with Tafoya in Boston in October of last year as she prepped for the Super Bowl rematch between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in sports journalism?

I love sports, and I love journalism. And when I was coming out of college and then grad school, there were a few more women popping up in sports broadcasting, and I thought “I can do that. I know I can do that.” So off I went.

What got you into journalism specifically?

I love getting news to people. I don’t know why; I just do. From the time I was a kid, I was the one in the neighborhood who saw someone fall and break their arm and ran home—“Mom, Mom! Did you hear?” I also loved storytelling, digging into people’s backgrounds, and all that. Journalism scratches all those itches, if you will.

What is it about Sunday Night Football that keeps you coming back?

It’s exciting every single week. You go really hard, nose to the grindstone from August to February, and then you get to breathe. But it’s exciting. It’s the best presentation of the NFL on television. It’s in primetime which makes it fun. I have a crew that’s like my second family, and I love them. I adore every single one of them, and that makes it a pleasure to go to work. All of those things combined make it an ideal job for me.

What’s the chemistry like between the Sunday Night Football team?

It’s funny—like a family, we can have a spat now and then. We can fight, argue, and have debates, but we all love and respect one another very much. Al [Michaels] and I are good buddies, and he’s been a champion of mine and a caretaker. I have nothing but respect for Cris [Collinsworth]. I think he’s so good at what he does, and it’s been so fun over the years getting to know him away from the broadcast booth, getting to know his family. I get parenting advice from Cris every now and then…I think the chemistry would be hard to recreate.

Along with technology, how has social media and instant access to news changed the way you report?

It changes [my] preparation, because [we] have access to news immediately. All of us on the crew will be driving in a bus to go to practice or something, and six people at the same time will go, “Oh, did you hear about Aaron Rodgers?” So that instantaneous access is great. Where we want to be careful is, we want to be first, but we want to be right. We’re very, very careful about what we tweet out and what we say. We’ve seen other people or other Twitter accounts get into trouble, because they get hacked or they get copied, and they disseminate wrong news. So it’s helpful, but like anything else, we have to be really cautious.

How do you cover things happening on the opposite side of the field when you are on the other sideline?

Well, you can see across the field, but I run a lot. [Laughing] I really do, I run a lot. I’d love to put a pedometer on sometime during a game to see how far I run, because you just do. We’ve got cameras all over the place, so if someone sees something developing, “Hey, Michele, get over to the Giants’ sideline, we’ve got…” So I’m sprinting over there, and next thing you know, “Oh, so-and-so on the Jaguars’ sideline has a concussion. Can you get that?” So then I’m sprinting back toward the other side. So it’s helpful to have all those cameras assist you with what’s going on, but you do a lot of running. I used to be an avid runner, but I broke my leg in April, and haven’t been able to run since. So running has been very labored, but I just keep very fit. It’s a necessity—you’ve got to do it.

How do you weigh when to report on what’s happening in the game versus major storylines from off the field this season?

Generally, I’m all about the game. We do prepare a lot of stuff—the graphics department, the [video] department, me—we all have stuff ready to go that we think is really good. A lot of that gets left on the cutting room floor, because there’s a game. Oh yeah, there’s a game! People want to follow the game. And if it’s relevant to the game, and it’s important to the action that’s going on right then, perfect. But if it’s not going to fit right in, then we’re not going to force it. It really is just about the game. Now, if you’re in a blowout, and you’re starting the fourth quarter, and it’s 36–7 or whatever, you start saying “Okay, let’s empty the buckets, and let’s start storytelling.”

There are more women working as sports reporters now. What’s it like seeing that growth, and what do you still hope to see in the future?

It’s great to see the growth, and what’s most important to me is that everybody who gets an opportunity is prepared for that opportunity, and is right for that opportunity. I never want to see it forced based on gender or based on, “Oh, we need to have a woman on the show!” I like seeing it happen organically and in an evolutionary way. I think more women are feeling empowered in the sport of football. They love talking about it. So many of the viewers are women. So I think that connection is really important.

You were the first woman in a number of roles in sports. How does it feel to now be firmly established as you watch more women follow your path?

I will be honest with you: I don’t feel like I had any influence on anybody. I really don’t. I’m surprised when players know my name. I’m surprised when people recognize me in the grocery store. It’s always a little bit of a surprise to me, still, after all these years. I guess I just don’t look at myself [that way]. I’m Michele. I’m Tyler and Olivia’s mom. I’m Mark’s wife. And that’s how I see myself. So if someone has used my journey as a model, that’s beautiful, and maybe someday I’ll appreciate it, but I’m still churning away, man. I’ve got to keep elevating my game.

I guess Tyler and Olivia still treat you like a normal mom?

Oh, you have no idea. I remember the day my son looked at me and said, “Mom, you know nothing about football.” I was like, “Did everyone hear what he just said?!” But then we had a fantasy draft, and I had studied Kareem Hunt, who’s now leading rushing in the league. I had studied him preseason, so I picked him, and he goes “Umm…do you want to trade me for that guy?” I go, “No! I did my research.” So maybe now he’s getting a little more respect for his mom.

 

Game On is a collaboration between Secret and the NFL featuring powerful women at the top of their professions in the male-dominated football industry. About her involvement, Tafoya says, "I’m so thrilled to partner with Secret. I share their goals of being bold and pursuing greatness—especially in environments where women are blazing trails. I always tell my daughter, ‘Don’t be afraid to be great!’ Secret is saying the same thing to women everywhere.” 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Illustrations by Alexandra Citrin