THE RAREST SPECIES in sports television is a woman offering her opinion. As bloviating Baylesses have sprouted up across cable systems, not to mention an endless army of gassy ex-athletes and coaches, it doesn't take Inspector Javert to recognize that women in the medium have long been restricted to anchoring or soft-focus reporting (sideline or otherwise).
That's why you should applaud CBS Sports Network executives for executing a concept that's long overdue. Last week saw the debut of We Need to Talk, an all-female, hourlong weekly sports show featuring 12 women—CBS commentators Dana Jacobson, Allie LaForce, Amy Trask, Lesley Visser and Tracy Wolfson; NFL Network's Andrea Kremer; and former athletes Katrina Adams, Laila Ali, Swin Cash, Lisa Leslie, Summer Sanders and Dara Torres—offering opinions on the sports news of the day. The New York Times accurately described the group as "a likable cast of smart and diverse voices—none of whom were given to shouting or interrupting—[who] should be given a long-term chance at success."
The debut of Talk followed a strong stretch for the few women in the sports media afforded a national on-air forum. ESPN staffers Kate Fagan, Jemele Hill and Jane McManus were strong on the NFL's domestic-violence issues, but no on-air female sports journalist stood taller than CNN Sports reporter Rachel Nichols. Her aggressive questioning of Roger Goodell on the league's botched handling of the Ray Rice case during Goodell's Sept. 19 press conference was noticed by viewers. Nichols trended on Twitter during the presser—sports broadcasters usually trend for making gaffes or simply for being Chris Berman or Joe Buck—and many people on the social-media service called for Nichols to take over as NFL commissioner. It came just days after she interrogated boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. about his history of domestic abuse on her eponymous CNN show, Unguarded with Rachel Nichols. As a result, the 40-year-old Nichols is at the moment the country's most impactful and prominent female sports journalist (as opposed to a television personality such as Erin Andrews of Fox Sports).
"The public did not feel the NFL understood that some of the early answers were not good enough," says Nichols, who is married to the son of film director Mike Nichols, who is in turn married to news anchor Diane Sawyer. "Hard questions to Roger Goodell in some ways let people feel like they were having an opportunity to ask the things they wanted to ask."
Nichols arrived at CNN in January 2013 after nine years as a correspondent on various sports at ESPN. (Before TV she was a reporter at The Washington Post.) ESPN had hoped to re-sign her to a long-term deal, but Nichols was intrigued by a proposal made by CNN president Jeff Zucker during a 70-minute breakfast meeting at an Upper East Side diner in winter 2012. Over eggs (Zucker) and oatmeal (Nichols), Zucker told Nichols that he wanted sports to become a bigger part of the daily conversation on CNN. He pitched her on having her own show and the chance to do sideline reporting for Turner Sports's NBA and MLB broadcasts.
Zucker watched Goodell's press conference from his office in Manhattan and said that Nichols's questioning was reflective of the work she has done this year on Rice, Donald Sterling, Adrian Peterson and other stories.
"What was I thinking?" says Zucker. "I was thinking, I'm damn glad we sent her."
Nichols is at the moment the country's most impactful female sports journalist.
TAYLOR BALLANTYNE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED