In Returning to ESPN, Erin Andrews Must Rely on Poise That Has Served Her Well

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, September 4, 2009

One of the really likable things about Erin Andrews is that she handles her beauty better than everyone around her. When the frat boys scream inarticulate devotions, or puritan critics scold her for dressing too pretty on the job, or the creeps fixate, she shows just the right amount of amused cool. Self-possession is her main feature as an ESPN reporter. It's as obvious as her beauty and it makes her good in the blaring, pressured chaos of a sideline interview, yet it's been overlooked about her. It strikes me that Erin Andrews, for all that she's been through, can take care of herself.

The audience's preoccupation with Andrews's appearance has long presented her with a series of professional complications, a matrix of trip wires. She works in a visual medium that tolerates Tony Siragusa but not an unattractive woman, and requires both to wear makeup. She has to take advantage of her appearance, yet can't appear to use it or she'll be accused of manipulation. She has to be appealing enough so that the participants on the sidelines will respond to her, and yet sharply knowledgeable enough to ask them tough questions in the important moment. This week brings a fresh complication: She has to reassert that she's a professional in control of her own image, while acknowledging that she was victimized by voyeurism.

Andrews's return to the sideline for Thursday night's ESPN's college football coverage of South Carolina vs. North Carolina State was her first on-air appearance since July, when she discovered a twisto videotaped her through a peephole in her hotel room, then put it on the Internet. The guess here is that, as usual, she will handle herself better than the rest of us. She has granted just one interview about the "nightmare," to Oprah Winfrey, which will air Sept. 11, and otherwise she intends to get back to business without further comment. Meantime, everyone else will use her to express an agenda. Among the tired things we're likely to hear:

She will be accused of a ratings grab, she will be questioned as to whether she belongs on a football telecast, she will be used as evidence that football is a misogynist culture, and she will endure suggestions that she had it coming for dressing that way. Opinionators will alternately cite her as a victim, or a cautionary figure who invited violation because she didn't smother all traces of femininity at work.

They're all wrong. These perspectives invariably lead to male bashing, or ranting about female victimization, with no recognition that men and women can be reconciled in the workplace, much less fond of each other.

The only person who gets it right is Andrews herself, who has always subscribed to an "I am who I am" mantra of individuality. She happens to be 5 feet 10 with a great shape and long tumble of blond hair, and she never apologized for that, and why should she now? While others stammered and hummed over her, she had a pleasing lack of self-consciousness, and my sincere hope is that she retains it. She resisted the notion that however good she was at her job, she was just another babe on the sideline, there to be ogled, an unwitting victim of ESPN's "entertainment package."

I've never met Andrews -- she declined an interview request -- but I've always liked the fact that while everyone cast projections on her, she remained very much herself. The daughter of a six-time Emmy-winning TV news reporter, Steve Andrews from Tampa, she has always handled herself with a fine sense of control and balance, stepping through the matrix of trip wires with a clear vision of where they are. She built her on-air personality with a solid understanding that while beauty matters, because it leads to interest, it can also lead to damning criticism and easy disparagement, so her real career drivers better be smarts and preparation.

"I think I'm a person that kind of over-prepares, just because I know the stereotypes out there for someone like me; I know the stereotypes for women," she told AOL's Fan House.

Long before the peephole outrage, she was an unusually charged sideline presence who dealt composedly with things no one deserves as a byproduct of her appearance, such as when Rey Maualuga danced behind her at the Rose Bowl. But she also understood that appearance was a reason behind her popularity, and her popularity was a reason behind her ascent. Judy Rankin's the best on-course commentator in golf, but no one searches for her on Google. When Playboy named Andrews the sexiest sportscaster two years in a row, she laughed and enjoyed the compliment without prudishness while making it clear it would be "a cold day in hell," as her father put it, before she would actually appear in that magazine.

When a columnist from Peoria named Mike Nadel slammed her for wearing a dress and chatting up players, she refused to buy into the idea that she can't be good-looking and credible at the same time.

"There's been so much made of, 'Oh she looks like this and she looks like that,' and then there's been people who say, 'She really needs to concentrate on being a sports reporter,' " she told The Washington Post's Steve Yanda in a May interview. "But sometimes I like to bring up the comparison of, 'Well, how come you can't look nice and be both?' " Keyshawn Johnson dresses exquisitely, she pointed out. "No one says, 'Hey guys, don't dress nice. Don't worry about your looks.' No one wants to take shots at them for caring about the way they dress."

It would be a genuine shame if voyeurism caused Andrews to like her job any less. And it would be an equal shame if it caused her to disassemble who she is, de-emphasize her natural attractiveness or sleepwalk through interviews with less rapport for fear it might be misinterpreted or invite creeps.

It's tempting to make easy judgments about what happened to Andrews. But voyeurism is an intolerable outrage that exists in every arena, not just sports, and what happened to her has less to do with her presence in a "male culture," than it does with the anarchy of the online world. Even that is no simple judgment, because the Internet is a place where valuable information and invention exist alongside the pornographic and perverse. ESPN isn't the first business to award jobs to women based in part on attractiveness, and misogyny predates football. While Andrews has been sexually harassed within the sports world, she has also been championed by it, and every raise or promotion she has had likely came from a man.

Andrews was victimized, but she's not a victim. Few American women have enjoyed as much opportunity or equality at work as she has. My guess is that she understands the complexities and contradictions of that, just as she appears to understand that beauty has as much to do with intelligence, congeniality and grace as it does with form.

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