What was Holly Rowe's reaction when a friend texted her that she was trending on Twitter?
"That can't be good."
On Jan. 3, the ESPN sideline reporter had interviewed Michigan football coach Brady Hoke after the Wolverines beat Virginia Tech in overtime to win the Sugar Bowl, 23-20. Some viewers noticed a curious encounter in the postgame, on-field scrum. Right after Hoke's handshake with Hokies coach Frank Beamer, the Michigan coach turned to face a woman with a tape recorder. But as he did so, Rowe arrived, shouldered the woman out of the way, then grabbed Hoke for an on-camera interview.
That maneuver sent blogosphere tongues wagging. Some admired Rowe's mettle, joking about stiff-arms, forearm shivers, sharp elbows, pushes or shoves. But others weren't laughing. Wrote one reader to the Poynter Review Project: "I felt it was very unprofessional. What message does this send to our youth?" Another user called it "Absolutely revolting. She needs to make a public apology." And some saw the close encounter as ESPN crossing the line between dominance and bullying.
Was what happened on the field in New Orleans an aberration, or business as usual? Securing an on-field interview is often a half-contact sport, but there are commonly understood protocols for how it's done. Rowe didn't violate those and, from what we can tell, the woman she boxed out took no offense. Between some miscommunication and the scramble after an overtime win, viewers got an unexpected and somewhat startling look at postgame chaos that's fairly routine.
"There is no typical postgame," Rowe told us. "You can never predict what's happening. It's never as organized as you want -- it's always chaotic."
When the game ends, a lot happens at once. The players greet each other. The coaches, often accompanied by police and sometimes by event staff, wind through crowds and well-wishers to shake hands. Photographers, camera operators and reporters swarm the field to find the coaches and the game's stars. A huge number of folks -- from assistant coaches and PR people to equipment managers and TV crews -- are trying to do their jobs in a big space that suddenly seems small.
As a sideline reporter, Rowe said, "The zeroes go on the clock and you run -- I literally run."
Sometimes sideline reporters access players or coaches are helped by event officials, but most of the time they're on their own.
"It's frantic, you're running and hoping for the best," Rowe said. Sometime she has been "forearmed, pushed and knocked down" by security people who don't realize what she's doing. And all the while, producers are yelling in a reporter's ear, trying to establish when to cut away from the broadcast team and down to the field. (For another in-the-scrum perspective, here’s one from one-time ESPN sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein.)
Amidst the chaos, it's commonly understood protocol among the reporters that the first on-field coach interview (typically quite short) belongs to the holder of the TV rights for that game. Ed Placey, ESPN's coordinating producer of college football, says that right isn't contractually specified but that's because the media generally agree that a common understanding is preferable to rules that would keep reporters at bay or off the field.
"That's the last thing anybody would want," Placey said.
But several things were different at the Sugar Bowl, leading to a bit of a mess.
The game went to overtime, so ESPN didn't know in the final seconds who the winning coach would be, and couldn't position itself to intercept him. As the happy Wolverines dog-piled on the field, Hoke got a celebratory Gatorade bath, and Rowe said she got slammed in the back in the confusion and nearly fell.
"Our reporters are usually right there in [the coach's] hip pocket," Placey said. But given the sudden ending and the chaos, Rowe was late getting into position -- and somebody else was already there.
The other person wasn't a reporter but a staff member working for John Sudsbury, the Sugar Bowl's media relations director. Mindful that it was after midnight and reporters in the press box were on deadline, Sudsbury had sent the staff member down to get "quick quotes" from Hoke that reporters could use. It was, he said, "bad communication, probably on my part."
Rowe said that just as she was going to get to Hoke, Sudsbury's staffer arrived and started asking questions. "I said 'no no no' and slid in between her and the coach, put my arm around him," Rowe recalled.
Rowe didn't think it had been a big deal, but ESPN's high camera angle had caught the collision. (See it and some of what led up to it here, and a closer view here.) That also wasn't normal, Placey said; ESPN tries to avoid showing the reporter and crew setting up the live shot with the coach. This time it did, and the results were a Web hit.
With the video seemingly everywhere the next day, Rowe said she called Sudsbury's staffer, whom she knew from previous games. Rowe said the staffer reassured her that she wasn't offended, and they laughed about it; Sudsbury said the staffer "had no problem whatsoever."
(Through others, we reached out to the staffer for comment, but were told she'd prefer not to be an even bigger part of the story.)
We're satisfied that no harm was done on the field beyond giving viewers more of a look at how the postgame sausage gets made than ESPN -- or any other network -- would prefer.
"It didn't seem like an unusual scene to me," Placey said. "It just didn't look flattering on TV."
Said Rowe: "I feel bad that people think it was something mean," adding that "It happens all the time. It will happen again. You do have to be aggressive to get your interview."