Ode to Pam Oliver: You will be missed on the NFL sidelines

BY CLYDE HUGHES

Pam Oliver, you were wronged. But then again, is anyone really surprised.

Oliver confirmed to Sports Illustrated this week what had been just rumor since the NFC championship game – that Fox has demoted the talented the longtime sideline reporter to network’s No. 2 team this season and will be taken off the sidelines completely at the end of the NFL season.

Her replacement – Erin Andrews, of course. Again, is anyone really surprised?

Yet, according to Sports Illustrated, the move did not become official until Fox Sports executives flew to Oliver to break the bad news to her in person.

“To go from the lead crew to no crew was a little shocking,” Oliver, 53, told Sports Illustrated, going into her 20th season with Fox Sports. “I said I wanted to do a 20th year (on the sidelines). I expressed to them that I was not done and had something to offer. Again, I think it was predetermined coming in. Not at that meeting, but two years ago it was determined that no matter what I did or did not do, a change would be made for this year.”

A veteran reporter anonymously told Sports Illustrated what everyone else was thinking.

“(Oliver’s) not blonde, nor is she in the demographic,” the reporter told Sports Illustrated, politely reminding us that she’s also African-American. “I’m not naïve and I understand it’s a business, but I think that Fox did not treat her as befits a woman who has been the female face of their sports operation for the past 19 years.”

To be fair, Fox Sports president Eric Shank told Sports Illustrated that they are actually expanding Oliver’s role with the network, signing her to a new multi-year deal where she will do long-form pieces, specials, major interviews and producing.

“Clearly it’s an expanded role that meets the needs of all the big events that Fox and Fox Sports 1 covers as well as the NFL on Fox,” Shanks said to Sports Illustrated. “I can’t think of a more respected person in the entire industry than Pam Oliver, and when you find out that Pam is going to be doing the interview, I don’t think you would say that anyone else would do the interview better.”

But the Sports Illustrated article correctly asked, if that’s truly the case, why remove Oliver from one of the highest profile positions you have at the network and from your most lucrative properties with the NFL?

When it comes to women of color reporting on the NFL, Oliver is part of a very, very small sorority. A quick review of previous stories done on her was nearly unanimous in their praise of her work, professionalism and connections. But for Fox Sports, times change, even though Oliver’s skills to do the job and do it as well as anyone have not.

Pam Oliver, you will be missed for your skill as a sports journalist and as a role model for other journalists. It’s ashamed that you’re not going out on your terms. You earned the right to have made that call yourself.

LeBron James returns home: Credit fans and Tim Duncan (wait. Tim Duncan?)

BY CLYDE HUGHES

If you would have asked me on Thursday if LeBron James would stay in Miami to play with the Heat or return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I would have laughed at you for asking me such a silly question. Miami, of course.

Consider this?

James years in Cleveland: No NBA titles.
James years in Miami: Four straight trips to the NBA finals and two world championships.

February weather in Cleveland: Freezing and lake-effect snow.
February weather in Miami: Sunny and in the 70s.

Best free agents he played with in Cleveland: Shaquille O’Neal at the end of his career.
Best free agents he played with in Miami: Future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with plenty in the tank.

It just goes to show you that James’ return to the Cavaliers on Friday (July 11) goes beyond the obvious. I would submit that you can credit two things to James’ decision – Cleveland fans and Tim Duncan.

Alright, you may say, I get the Cleveland fans but what does Tim Duncan have to do with this? Give me a second to hear me out and I’ll explain.

As a writer at the Toledo Blade, I remember James nearly selling out Savage Hall at the University of Toledo when his high school team played a playoff game there. James is indeed a self-proclaimed son of Northeast Ohio, but the entire state embraced him as one of their own while he was still attending proms and learning how to drive.

That connection was real. But how real? When James left Cleveland to go to Miami in the middle of self-created media circus, it crushed his most loyal fans and friends. It wasn’t until Friday that fans knew just how much it affected James personally.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart,” James said in the opening of his essay in Sports Illustrated Friday announcing his return.

“People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

In the finals of this year’s NBA championship against the San Antonio Spurs, you could almost see something was amiss. James was doing what he does as the world’s best player yet the Spurs crushed the Heat in the four games they won in a 4-1 series rout. We very well may not be talking about this moment if Miami had actually won that series. Here’s where my Tim Duncan theory comes in.

Duncan has been with the Spurs for 17 years and, like James, is one of, if not, the most beloved figures in San Antonio. Duncan’s loyalty is equally as great, routinely turning down bigger money to play in bigger, more media-hyped markets to stay in San Antonio to win championships with a fan base that covets the ground he walks on.

It’s hard to imagine after the final buzzer of Game 5, that James did not look around, saw the adulation for Duncan and the Spurs and think, “Wow, this is what I had in Cleveland. Why can’t we do this in Cleveland the way they did it in San Antonio?”

Shortly afterward, Duncan signed another contract with the Spurs, again signing for millions less to ensure that finishes his career with the team. Is it really just a coincidence that this would happen and merely weeks later James would return to Cleveland?

Even if the James-Duncan connection does sound far-fetched, so did the prospects of James returning to Cleveland at that time, where the Cavaliers finished a distant 33-49 in the Central Division this past season and hadn’t been close to making the playoffs since he departed.

There is hope. The Cavaliers have the best young point guard in the NBA in Kyrie Irving. It just drafted a potential league superstar in Andrew Wiggins with the first pick in the NBA draft. If they are able to bring in another strong veteran, the Cavs could challenge for the Eastern Conference title this upcoming season.

James is on the record that this is not just a feel-good move. He wants to bring an NBA title to Cleveland. Even Johnny Manziel’s on board (probably because this gets him off the front pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer).

James said he is not promising any immediate championships, but wanted to make it clear that he’s coming back on his terms and his terms alone.

“I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted,” James wrote. “I don’t want anyone thinking: He and Erik Spoelstra didn’t get along. … He and Riles (Miami Heat president Pat Riley) didn’t get along. … The Heat couldn’t put the right team together. That’s absolutely not true. I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.”

And work he will have to do.

Prince Fielder: An unexpected inspiration

BY CLYDE HUGHES

What in the world was Prince Fielder thinking?

The Texas Rangers slugger has some audacity, posing naked for the ESPN the Magazine’s so-called “Body” issue. He’s not exactly the San Francisco 49ers’ Vernon Davis, who I lost a female friend over the first time she saw him in his football uniform. Heck, many would think Fielder would not be in the top 50 of Major League’s we’d want to see in the “Body.”

The first thing that came to mind was opening monologue to Sir Mix-A-Lot song “Baby Got Back.”

“I mean, her butt, is just so big. I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like, out there.”

It didn’t take long for such movie stars like Cuba Gooding Jr. to make fun of him on TMZ.com Wednesday.

Looks like two midgets in an arm wrestling contest with a bag of knuckles,” he said to celebrity website after laughing out loud at the photo.

But if people like Gooding would take a freaking breath and stop their self-righteous chuckling for just a second, they may realize the brilliance behind Fielder’s decision to pose for ESPN the Magazine. It’s brilliant because everyone will talk about it, everyone will have an opinion about it, and everyone will have to come to the conclusion that what he has done with his photos is make a statement about our view of the human body.

“You don’t have to look like an Under Armour mannequin to be an athlete,” Fielder told ESPN the Magazine about his decision to do the photo shoot. “I work out to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability.”

No one can argue Fielder is a top Major League talent. The millions the Rangers are giving him to play baseball at the highest level in the planet is a testament to that. Covering the Detroit Tigers for the Toledo Blade back in the 1990s, I heard all the stories from other reporters about his batting practice exploits as a youngster while his father Cecil Fielder watched when I arrived at Tiger Stadium to cover games.

He is a person supremely confident in his ability as a baseball player. Why wouldn’t he feel the same way about his body – and in his own way make us feel the same in our road to become a healthier person. Fielder’s body is the talk of the magazine, and I say that’s a good thing – a great thing.

See Fielder’s cover comes at the perfect time for me. I am working on running a 5K race in a few weeks. I did a father-daughter 5K with my daughter Ashley a few years ago and while not in perfect shape then, I was better than I am today. I have yet to even come close to the time I ran that Thanksgiving in 2012 with my now law school-attending daughter and right now I would be happy just to break 40 minutes.

After a workout Tuesday, I was ready to give up and start to wonder why I’m even doing this, especially walking by a bathroom mirror, which pointed out all the faults and failures in my body over a lifetime of journalism where I sat down to make a living.

Fielder’s attitude is refreshing, bold and even brazen if I may say so.

Some of us, simply because of biology, will spend a lifetime trying to shed enough pounds and will never get that Shaun T six-pack look. I’ve long resigned myself to the fact that I’m one of those people. I hate welcoming the winter just so I can put on additional clothing to hide my body’s faults. I despise the feeling that I can never (ever, ever) take off my shirt at a beach.

Not so much today. As I continue to shed the weight slowly pound by pound, I feel more secure, more confident, even more “brazen” because Fielder decided to share to tell the world that you can look good with a little bit of weight, and used himself as an example.

Prince, you were an unexpected inspiration. Now, it’s time to go out for another run.

NASCAR’s Darrell Wallace goes to BET Awards — and gets earful from racing fans on Instagram

BY CLYDE HUGHES

I give NASCAR credit for thinking outside the box and trying to expand its base. It is smart marketing to look into the future to see where your growth will come from and look for opportunities to tap into it.

That is why I’m sure NASCAR thought it was a good idea when it turned its Instagram account to Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the racing circuit’s lone African-American driver, and sent him to the BET Awards Sunday – that’s BET as in Black Entertainment Television.

Surely NASCAR had to anticipate that there would be a few bad apples that frequent their Instagram account that would rain on Wallace’s parade while he’s enjoying John Legend, Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne and the likes. According to Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News on Wednesday (July 2), Wallace found a deluge of negative, rude and racist comments about him posting anything about BET on the NASCAR forum.

“Don’t care about the BET, shouldn’t have anything to do with Nascar. Why do they keep trying to shove it down our throats? Leave it alone,” said one commenter.

“That’s weird…I thought I was following nascar. Not the BET Instagram page,” another commenter added.

“Wtf does this have to do with NASCAR or racing in general @nascar,” said a commenter.

“So it’s ok for LeBron James to say that basketball is for black people but it’s not ok to say NASCAR is a primarily white sport? Hmm… That seems more racist than any of the comments I’ve seen,” added another.

“Have you ever seen a rapper perform before a race? Is always country. Nascar was formed off of moonshine runners. Not N.W.A.!” said another for good measure.

And those are the ones NASCAR allowed the stay up after zapping many other comments because they crossed the line of decorum.

“If any abusive comments were left up – of any type – it was simply an oversight. Our policy is that ANY foul or abusive language is not allowed and will be deleted – and repeat offenders risk being blocked from commenting at all. Every person deserves our respect and should feel welcome as a part of the NASCAR family. Our community has a responsibility to also report any abusive comments – you can do so by sliding any comment from right to left and clicking the exclamation point,” NASCAR wrote on one of the Instagram posts.

Some fans did stick up for Wallace at the BET Awards and took their Instagram commenters to task.

“Idiotic comments like these is why NASCAR has a bad image on the outside,” one commenter said. “Same thing with the people who complain out Dylan Kwasnieski’s hat. The sport isn’t completely ‘southern’ or ‘redneck’ anymore. Hasn’t been for a while. Deal with it.”

One commenter saluted NASCAR for putting Wallace on, writing: “@nascar I have to give you A LOT of credit for doing something that you knew would cause more vocal fans to react and cause you a lot of work. Just so you can branch out and show that NASCAR is more than beer, country music, and driving in circles.”

Wallace, 20, who looks to have a bright future ahead of him in NASCAR, tried to take the high road with some of his racing fans in a tweet.

“The people who are upset over the Instagram takeover w/ NASCAR n BET…are what’s wrong with the world today #ignorance,” he posted.

“The only full-time African-American driver in a NASCAR national series, the two-time Camping World Truck Series winner often is told to shake off racial comments on social media. A fool with a computer doesn’t deserve a response,” wrote Pockrass.

“Born to a Caucasian father (also named Darrell, hence the need for the youngster to have a nickname, ‘Bubba’) and an African-American mother, Wallace said he has been well accepted by NASCAR fans. When his father hugged him in victory lane last month at Gateway, there was no mention on Twitter about the color of their skin,” Pockrass added.

One would think since we’re 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that Wallace posting about the BET Awards on NASCAR’s Instagram page would not cause such a fuss. Some things, though, are hard to change. Wallace’s handling of situation, though, has just earned him a new fan. I’ll be looking for him from now on.

“I don’t take it personal at all,” Wallace told the Sporting News. “I tell myself that it’s 2014 and we’re just the same as everybody. We’re all created equal, right? To be able to be the ambassador for it, to go along with it, that is part of it.”

On that, we can agree.