Fox's Pam Oliver is a pioneer and she has scars and respect to prove it
The bruise is still visible seven days later, an ugly patch of purplish-blue staining the flesh of her forearm.
An overaggressive nurse armed with an intravenous needle left Pam Oliver with the parting gift after spending hours in an emergency room.
“She maimed me!” she dramatically shrieks. “At the time I was like, ‘That really hurt.’ ”
A day before the longtime Fox broadcaster was set to roam the sidelines for her first NFL game of the 2019 season — Washington at Philadelphia in Week 1 — Oliver was at Penn University Hospital, seeking relief from another migraine.
The symptoms come without warning. They have since she was 25.
The burning starts in her neck.
Then her shoulders start to tense.
By the time they wake her in the middle of the night, it’s too late to stop.
Then comes excruciating pain. Nausea. Vomiting. Sensitivity to light. Even impaired vision.
And yet, for years, the 58-year-old Oliver avoided attention, steered clear of sympathy.
She has no time for that.
“I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to prepare,” she says matter-of-factly, a week after she arrived at the production truck “as good as gold,” according to her producers, for the season opener. “You’ve just got to push through some times. Life ain’t always easy. And I always go back to — nobody cares.”
That Week 1 matchup marked the beginning of Oliver’s 25th season at Fox, a rare achievement for any sports broadcaster, let alone a trailblazing black woman. She has been a fixture in TV for 35 years, developing a reputation as a consummate professional, a tireless researcher, a dogged reporter and one of the original faces of football television on Fox.
“She’s the first lady of football. She’s The O.G,” ESPN TV reporter Lisa Salters said by phone.
As the NFL’s 100th year nears a close in Miami, the biggest game of the season — Super Bowl LIV — will take centerstage on Fox. So, too, will Oliver’s former broadcast teammate, John Lynch, now the general manager of the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, who will face the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 2 at Hard Rock Stadium.
But Oliver won’t be a fixture during her own network’s Super Bowl coverage.
This week, she returns to Florida — the state where she spent her formative high school years and later became an All-American track athlete and Sports Hall of Fame inductee at Florida A&M — not for the big game, but to be honored with another award for her career achievements.
And yet, she is still standing.
Heartbreak, health crises, and her highly publicized demotion in 2014 from the network’s No. 1 broadcast team, are all part of Oliver’s story — a story that she has spent the past five years trying to distill into a memoir that she says will be “raw” and “very, very personal.”
Oliver has become the standard of professionalism for women who look like her, and so many more who don’t, said Fox colleague Kristina Pink.
“Pam is just important to everybody. Just her legacy. Her longevity. All women, all reporters — male, female, black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter," Pink said. “The way she approaches her work is just an example to all of us.”
Oliver is a pioneer. And she is an influential figure who inspired reporters like Pink, Maria Taylor, Tiffany Blackmon and countless others to careers in sports broadcasting. But to understand Oliver’s professional triumphs and the impact she has made on a generation of young female reporters, you must first understand her personal struggles.
The loss of her beloved older sister to cancer in June after a long wait for a kidney donation that never materialized. A series of medical issues, including a devastating concussion suffered while the football world watched as she reported from an NFL sideline. And her “promotion-demotion,” as she terms it, at Fox.
Through it all — sexist and racist comments, career uncertainty and routine criticisms of her appearance — Oliver has kept pushing. And she has stayed true to herself the entire time.
To truly get a sense of who she is, first know this: She doesn’t care what you think.
Said Oliver: “At the end of the day, I don’t have time for that s- - -.”
Oliver enters the hotel conference room wearing black leggings and a black top with the words, “Good Day Vibes,” etched on the front. Her Nike Air Max sneakers, decorated in pink, peach and white hues, and the tattoo that is barely visible from a distance on her left ankle, further indicate a vibrant, playful side to the 58-year-old TV veteran.
She has an hour to kill before her Fox broadcast team — Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, and producers Pete Macheska and Artie Kempner — arrive for their 6 p.m. production meeting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. the night before a game.
Oliver’s bangs are clipped to the side of her forehead.
There’s barely a trace of makeup on her face.
She’s armed with a laptop and copious notes.
It’s clear she’s ready to work.
In an ever-changing industry that caters to reporters aiming to build their own brands, Oliver is old school. Her brand is simple and straight-forward: A well-liked and tenacious reporter.
Players, coaches and team executives seek her out on Sundays. So do gameday officials.
She’s greeted with smiles and warm handshakes before weekly production meetings with NFL teams, and occasionally, interview responses from players are accompanied by a polite, reverent, “Yes, Ms. Oliver.”
Burkhardt and Davis are under no illusions about where they stand in the broadcast hierarchy.
“Everybody comes in to see her — not me and Kevin,” Davis said.
“She is the headliner of our group. There is no question about that,” agreed Burkhardt. “Heck, a few years ago we were doing a Giants game and I got tickets for one of my best friends growing up and he was literally in love with Pam. Like, would watch games for Pam. So when I introduced him to Pam I thought he was going to pass out. Like, rockstar status.”
“I had a fangirl moment the first time I had a conversation with her,” said Pink. “This is now my colleague, but at that moment, you couldn't tell me I didn't talk to Oprah or Beyoncé.”
Oliver’s 25-year tenure at Fox is second only to Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long, both of whom joined the network a year earlier. Oliver — who is in the last year of her contract — views her long run as “a very big bonus,” but those who know her aren’t at all surprised that she emerged as a fixture in NFL coverage.
“She’s someone you can trust,” Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson told Yahoo Sports earlier this season. “And in this industry, there aren’t a lot of people you can trust like that.
“Having a black woman that you can say this or say that to, and know it’s not going to go anywhere — unless you clear it — you just have respect for people like that; people who have some type of integrity when it comes to this business. Especially in media.”
Even NFL team owners speak of her in a reverential tone.
“She has a communication skill that really causes people to share, with her, unique thoughts and express them in unique ways. Because she shows grace,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t want to say it’s rare, but it just isn’t the practice the majority of the time with media. In sports media, especially. But she’s got an insight. She can put the person she’s interviewing, or the story she’s talking about, she can put their shoes on. She’s got a great skill.”
They all receive the same attention to detail, and the same level of patience and understanding. But also they’re confronted with a reporter so experienced, so dogged in her duties, that she simply won’t tolerate subterfuge. Davis termed the tactic “educated fearlessness.”
“There’s an understanding in the room: If you’re going to sit down with Pam, you better be ready,” he said.
Oliver is a modern-day throwback to an era when female broadcasters such as Lesley Visser, Andrea Kremer, Robin Roberts and Michelle Tafoya, wanted to be known for simply doing the job and doing it well. They never sought to be the story, said Kremer, a longtime friend and fellow sports journalist.
“Those of us in this sort of generation … I think we all were very cognizant of the way that we comported ourselves because the next generation has always grown up watching us,” she added. “Pam, after Robin Roberts, is probably the most prominent African-American sportscaster. And she takes that responsibility seriously.”
Oliver has focused on building relationships, being prepared and providing context as much as information to her audience. “You know, it's one thing when you're young to establish these relationships with those people. But those faces, unfortunately, they move rather fast,” said Hall of Fame quarterback and three-time Super Bowl winner Troy Aikman, who worked on the network’s No. 1 team with Oliver and Joe Buck until 2014, when she was surprisingly replaced by Erin Andrews and moved to the No. 2 team.
“There’s another set of players. And I know in the time that I've been broadcasting, I've seen guys come into the league, they retire, and then there's another set of players coming through — and Pam's been doing it longer than I have. And so with each of those, you have to reestablish those relationships. That's really what this business is about. And in order to do that, I think you have to have deemed some measure of respect. And she's been able to do that. It speaks volumes for how she conducts herself, how she does her job and how she treats people.”
For so long, Oliver has made being herself look easy.
Her journey to this point has been anything but.
Pushing through after loss of a sister and health issues
For a few moments, there was nothing but silence.
Oliver is still trying to comprehend it. She’s still struggling to accept it.
Her older sister, Jacque — her advocate, her unwavering cheerleader, the one who’d watch Oliver on TV every Sunday and wondered aloud why her baby sister’s face wasn’t on screen more — was gone.
Oliver describes this past summer as one “long, rough” stretch of months that spiraled from one setback to another.
“She got sick and it just just kept tumbling.”
Her sister, in need of dialysis because of a kidney issue, was first too ill to receive a transplant. A cancer diagnosis further complicated her sister’s delicate situation, resulting in her being kicked off the recipient list “until you're healthy for five years post-cancer,” Oliver said, enunciating each syllable.
Her sister didn’t live to see cancer-free years. On June 8, 2019, she died at the age of 63.
Oliver was left with an immeasurable void.
“You’ve lost your sister. One of your best friends on this planet. And your champion,” she said, her voice trailing off again.
Oliver had resided in her sister’s city of Houston when she worked for local station KHOU-TV and remained there when she moved on to ESPN. Now, the Fox fixture searches for comfort by listening to voicemails still saved on her phone.
“She was there for all of it,” Oliver said, softly.
The youngest of three girls, she lived the typical military life growing up — ever-changing addresses and a constant longing to lay down roots somewhere. When her parents, Mary and John, an Air Force serviceman, divorced, Oliver was forced to make a choice: Stay with her father or move to a new place with her mother.
“I just wanted to finish high school,” said Oliver, who, at the time, lived in Florida with her middle sister. (Jacque was already married and living on her own.)
“I’ll never forget that day she drove off without her girls.”
It’s been about 15 years since her mother passed away and almost five since her father died. Her sister’s death “was just a heartbreaker,” she said. “I talk to her. I look at her picture. … It’s still so hard for me to talk about. I can’t … I just can't believe it.”
Kempner was the first Fox crew member she had told of her sister’s passing.
After almost 25 years of friendship, the pair bicker like an old married couple that can’t stand each other, but long ago accepted that they’re better together. “I don't know if he told you, but we have one good, knockdown drag-out [argument] every single season,” Oliver said, smiling. “He won’t shut up.”
Their special bond is the reason Oliver often confides in Kempner first. And it’s why he sought out Oliver while in the midst of his divorce four years ago. “She got me through it,” Kempner said.
Those closest to her are fiercely loyal. They’ve been by her side through the setbacks, through the struggles, and they’re particularly protective. Especially when it comes to her health.
Oliver is in a constant race against time to stave off the next migraine. She doesn’t know what triggers them, but she has tried everything to find relief from the vomiting, the nausea and the pain.
“That’s probably been the bane of my existence in terms of health,” she said of the chronic headaches, which sometimes force her to hide out in stadium tunnels to avoid noise, lights and pyrotechnics, “if I can.”
She has learned to do progressive muscle relaxation, a method used to relieve tension, and also self-administers two shots of medication every month to give her body the chance “to fight just a little bit more.”
“You just jam this thing in your thigh,” she said with the same matter-of-factness she disclosed that she suffered from fibroids that required surgeries "every two years, like clockwork,” starting in her 20s.
Her plan was always to have kids, but when she ran into medical issues “my windows went — boom!” Oliver said, slapping her hands together.
The pain was so unrelenting, she’d be in agony as she stood on the sideline providing in-game reporting. Out of desperation she accepted a Lupron shot — used to treat symptoms of endometriosis and uterine fibroids — at the suggestion of her doctor about 12 years ago.
“I went into a medical menopause that my body was not down with,” she said.
(Oliver, who has been married to CNN Sports producer Alvin Whitney for 15 years, insists she has no regrets about not having children of her own. “I love being a stepmom even to this day,” she said, referring to Whitney’s three children. “To me, it just all worked out.”)
All the while, the migraine pain never ceased. The headaches were only exacerbated when she was hit on the side of the face by a football during pregame warmups while covering a 2013 Giants-Colts preseason game at MetLife Stadium.
She was injured a lot worse than anybody knew.
“I would run to get to cities for games and on Saturdays, I’m running to find an urgent care or an E.R.,” said Oliver, who spent five days, laying down in the dark, in her Atlanta home. “I just came back way too soon after I had that concussion.”
She was “constantly shoveling” Excedrin Migraine pills, sometimes three to six at a time. When symptoms flared up on the road, NFL medical staffers offered assistance and advice.
“I was getting rebound headaches is what they finally discovered,” Oliver said. “So I was kind of having the same migraine over again.”
Members of her inner circle knew she was in agony. But Oliver suffered quietly.
“I hate to invoke Bill Belichick, but she just does her job,” Kremer said. “She played with pain and nobody ever really knew about it.”
The job came first.
“You just push through it,” Oliver said. “It’s not just about you. You have a team to consider.”
In all, she estimates missing four games in 25 years at Fox. One of those times was because her mother died.
Asked what’s the most challenging thing she’s ever been through, she smiled.
“You know what that is.”
‘That was a punk move’
Aikman admitted he didn’t take the news well.
He had known Oliver throughout his playing career in Dallas. And when he first got into broadcasting, she was the sideline reporter he was paired with. Oliver became a sister to him, and eventually one of his favorite people on the planet.
“I absolutely love her to death. And I wouldn't say that about a lot of people,” Aikman said. “I could maybe list on one hand that I know, if something was said and it wasn't right, that a person would stand up for you. … But Pam’s one of those two or three people who I know she would. I know she has.”
People in the industry often credit Oliver for approaching the job “the right way.”
News of her removal from the network’s No. 1 team — in favor of the younger, and lesser-experienced, Erin Andrews — naturally made headlines.
"I know what she meant to us and our crew and what she meant to me on a personal level,” Aikman said.
He then sighed.
“Yeah, it was really hard.”
Oliver’s media colleagues credit her for being the consummate professional during that humiliating time.
“There’s a lot of people that couldn't handle that with the aplomb that she did,” said Kremer, who along with ESPN’s Hannah Storm, became the first all-female crew to announce an NFL game. “There’s no doubt that the first time that she was — no pun intended — sidelined for the playoffs was really tough. It's definitely like watching somebody else out with your estranged husband. It's hard for players. Why would it be any less difficult for a broadcaster?”
Some in the industry felt Oliver had been wronged.
“It was a punk move by Fox,” Salters said. “You don’t replace somebody, just because somebody else, they think, is more popular. Or blonder. That’s not a reason to replace somebody. But like I told her then: If they’re going to pay you more money to demote you, that tells you right there that they know they're wrong. So, yeah, take the money and run.”
Asked if he could have handled the demotion like Oliver, Aikman’s tone turned serious: “No. Probably not.”
Oliver called it her “first career kick in the teeth,” but said she “wasn’t going to accept that that was the end of what it is I love. … I think the shocker of all shockers was that [I said], ‘OK. What team am I going to be on then?’ Because they were thinking, I was just going to ride off into the sunset because I was supposed to go to FS1 and be this whole centerpiece. I was not going to leave Fox to go to FS1, which was a maybe venture [at the time]. Yeah, you would have never heard from me again.”
‘The best to ever do it’
Oliver insisted she’s not worried about her contract expiring in August.
In the remaining years of her broadcasting career, she’s determined to make the journey for other journalists easier than it ever was for her. It’s why she willingly gives out her contact info to students and younger reporters in need of guidance.
“I will give you my phone number because you can't really take this stuff with you,” she said. “I wished that I could have had somebody that I had access to. There were people I admired but couldn’t reach.”
She was the first person Salters and Pink called when they transitioned to sideline reporting. “She gave me the crash course,” Pink said.
Oliver routinely introduces herself to young female reporters she encounters on the road — an act of kindness that meant the world to NFL Network’s Tiffany Blackmon early on in her NFL Network career. “I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that Pam Oliver came to introduce herself to little ol’ me,” the Atlanta-based reporter said of their late 2016 encounter.
When Burkhardt was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus by his alma mater, William Paterson University, in April 2019, Oliver made sure she was in the room. “Pam freaking flew up from Atlanta for it, which I could not believe,” said the New Jersey native. “To fly somewhere for something like that, it takes a lot of extra want-to. You really have to care about somebody to do that.”
Years ago, Oliver showed up at Salters’ Atlanta home, unannounced and armed with a bottle of wine, on the same day Salters was moving out of her home following a relationship breakup. “We sat out by the pool and she just kept my mind off everything and just kind of held my hand throughout the whole thing. That's the kind of person Pam is,” Salters said. “We joke with her that she’s borderline agoraphobic. And so for her to come over and just hang out because she knew that I was at a low point, she was just a true friend.”
Friends like Oliver are rare in this business, they all agreed. But broadcasters with her type of longevity are even more atypical. That’s why she’s “a legend,” according to Salters, and why Kremer believes Oliver deserves “as much credit as Pat Summerall and John Madden” for the launching of Fox Sports.
“She’s the best ever to do it,” added Davis.
Oliver won a Gracie Award in 2018 for Best On-Air Talent in Sports/Entertainment from the Alliance for Women in Media. During Super Bowl week in 2019, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Atlanta Women in Sports. And on Wednesday in Miami, Oliver will receive an Excellence in Media award at The Sports Power Brunch, an event celebrating the most powerful women in sports.
“People just don’t last in our business unless they're good. And Pam has been around … forever,” Salters said with a light chuckle. “She continues to be the standard there. And that doesn't happen very often.
"…They’re quick to get rid of you when you get older and you’re a woman. And she stays around because Fox recognizes the value in her connections, her relationships with teams, players, coaches. And Fox recognizes that not all reporters, not all sideline reporters, have that kind of capital within the league.”
More from Yahoo Sports: