For a young African American woman to succeed in the male-dominated field of sports journalism, it takes an exceptional blend of hard work, expertise, confidence, and tact. Throughout her rapidly advancing career, Pam Oliver has demonstrated all these qualities, earning the respect of athletes and fellow journalists alike. She has met the challenges of racism and sexism in her chosen field with calm professionalism, yet she has never hesitated to stand up for herself when challenged. For all her hard work, Oliver has earned national renown as a sports broadcaster.
Oliver was born on March 10, 1961, in Dallas, Texas. Her father, John Oliver, was a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and her mother, Mary Oliver, worked in the home, caring for young Pam and her two sisters. As a military family the Olivers moved frequently, living in Texas, Michigan, Washington, California, and Florida as the children grew up.
Pam discovered her athletic abilities while attending elementary school in the Arlington Park section of Dallas. Joining a track meet on the school’s dirt oval, she won all three of the races she entered and began her career as an athlete. Her father had played football both in college and the Air Force, and Pam began watching sports on television with her dad when she was still a little girl.
When she was in high school, Oliver’s family moved to the town of Niceville in the western end of the Florida panhandle. At Niceville High School, she excelled in track, basketball, and tennis, performing so well in track that she earned a sports scholarship to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee.
Even as a child, Oliver preferred watching sports and news programs to children’s shows on TV. “I was a television news junkie. I would plan everything around the news,” she told YSB. By age three, Oliver had envisioned herself in a successful career, rather than in the more traditional role of wife and mother. She had seen both of her sisters marry after high school and determined that she would go to college. She was especially interested in becoming a reporter because those she’d seen on television seemed “cool,” as she commented to YSB. She chose to attend FAMU, which had been founded on October 3, 1887, as the State Normal College for Colored Students, because it was an historically black college.
After a childhood isolated by the constant moving required by her father’s military career, and graduating from the largely white Niceville High School, Oliver wanted to attend a predominantly black college. As she told Ernie Suggs in the September 30, 2002, Knight-Ridder/Tribune article, “; I needed a genuine black experience.” Her early days at FAMU were not easy, however. Oliver’s accent and viewpoint set her apart from those who had been raised within black communities, and she found it hard at first to find friendship and acceptance.
However, she soon began to flourish at FAMU. For her academic career, Oliver chose FAMU’s school of journalism. Her course work was demanding, with an emphasis on excellence in writing and interviewing skills which would become hallmarks of Oliver’s broadcasting career.
In sports, she gained a reputation as a winning sprinter, earning All American status in both the 400-meter and the mile relay. The record she set during her college career for the 400-meter race still stood unbroken in 2005. Though she qualified for the trials for the U.S. Olympic track team, Oliver gave up her athletic career after her graduation from FAMU. A track career would demand too much time and attention, and Oliver had a career in journalism to build.
graduation, she took a sales job at a department store cosmetics counter while volunteering as a community affairs reporter at the local public access television station. Former teachers at FAMU suggested she apply for a job as a news reporter at Albany, Georgia’s WALB-TV. She got the job and moved to Georgia.
For the next eight years, her professional life would resemble her childhood as she moved from city to city, developing her career as a television journalist. She worked as a news reporter and anchor in such varied locations as WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, WIVB-TV in Buffalo, New York, KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas, and WTVT-TV in Tampa, Florida.
Though the news department was considered to have higher status than the sports department, Oliver wanted to work in sports. This was due in part to her lifelong athletic skill and interest in sports and athletes, but it was also due to the fact that sports reporting followed a regular schedule. News events, on the other hand, were unpredictable, and news reporters worked long and irregular hours. Everywhere Oliver worked, she volunteered to help in the sports department, often creating her own stories on topics that interested her.
Finally, the manager of WTVT-TV in Tampa offered her a job in sports, even though many thought it was step down from her work on the news. She continued to work the sports desk at her next job, at Houston’s KHOU-TV. It was there she attracted the notice of the national cable sports network, ESPN, which hired her as a sportscaster in 1993.
In 1995, Oliver’s career took another leap forward when she was hired by Fox Sports, another national cable sports network. Working for the Atlanta-based station, she continued her excellence in sports broadcasting, anchoring Southern Sports Report and Southern Sports Tonight, as well as appearing as sideline anchor for all National Football League (NFL) broadcasts. In 2005 she reported on the sidelines for the National Basketball Association Playoffs. Her thorough knowledge of the game, her respect for the players, and her sharp interviewing skills have led experts like Rudy Mortzke of USAToday to rate her as one of the top female sports broadcasters.
In addition to her regular duties of covering games and conducting pre and post game interviews, Oliver has created feature programs, highlighting the human side of sports and providing touching insights into the athlete’s lives. Always seeking excellence and authenticity, she writes her own scripts for these acclaimed features. About an interview Oliver conducted in 2003, Los Angeles Times Sports columnist Larry Stewart wrote that his attention was drawn to the interview because of Oliver. He added that “It was the questions Oliver asked and how she asked them–tough and to the point, but not offensive. It was how Oliver listened to what the [interviewee] was saying and how she responded.”
While Oliver did not dwell on her differences from the white male majority of sportscasters, neither did she accept disrespect and discrimination. More than once she has responded sharply to condescending and insulting comments from athletes and other reporters. But she expected professionalism and respect from her colleagues and offered them the same high standards in return. As she told Essence, “I’ve been at this long enough that the players know I’m serious about what I do. I’ve never once heard it said to my face, ‘Oh, she’s cute so I’ll talk to her.’ You prove that you know your stuff, and everything else falls into place.”
Though Oliver’s work on cable television has made her face famous, she has little desire to take part in the celebrity social scene. She has not forgotten the skills she learned at FAMU, and she has continued to return there periodically to serve as “journalist in residence,” offering her experiences to help the next generation of students. In addition, she also has mentored and supported other athletes who aspire to become sports journalists, such as Chuck Smith, who formerly played defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons.