LOS ANGELES — Two tables filled with family, friends and colleagues cheered at the mention of Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver’s name during the 2018 Gracie Awards. She hadn’t taken the stage, but her father-in-law, phone in hand, began taking photos.
“She is the best ever at her job,” said Kevin Burkhardt, a play-by-play announcer for the NFL on Fox, during his introduction of Oliver. “She’s a trailblazer and an icon, and I’m lucky to call her my friend.”
Oliver, in a sequined pantsuit, was camera-ready as people pulled out their cellphones when she accepted the 2018 Gracie Award for on-air talent-entertainment and sports at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The awards, sponsored by the Alliance for Women in Media, recognizes “exemplary programming created by women, for women and about women in all facets of media and entertainment,” according to its website.
“When I first heard [I was a recipient of the award], I was very excited because I knew about the Gracies,” Oliver said. “I went and looked at the previous roster from 2017, and then I saw some of the women that have been honored with me and I was floored. To somehow stand out and be amongst that group of women, I was somewhat thinking, gosh, I’m a little starstruck. Then you are like, ‘How did I get into this?’ Then I’m like, ‘You know what? I earned it,’ so I’m really honored. It’s really a career highlight.”
Among the women honored at this year’s Gracies were Rita Moreno, April Ryan, Issa Rae, Hoda Kotb and Niecy Nash.
“I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of media leading up to tonight about what it is I do and how much I love it,” she told the hundreds of women there. “There are two common denominators related to how I was raised, and my passion. One is sports and the other was journalism. One of my favorite questions is, ‘What can you teach young girls that want to do what you do?’ My thing first and foremost is you have to protect your dream. … I’d like to dedicate this to my family and parents who are up in heaven, Jeff and Mary, probably talking about how proud they are of their daughter, and that’s given me wings for so many years.”
A day before the awards ceremony, Oliver sat in the lobby of the same hotel for an interview. Her infectious smile caught the attention of other guests.
Oliver, the youngest of three girls doted on by her parents, talked about being raised in a military household and shared stories about how her parents always knew she would succeed. Jeff and Mary Oliver set the tone for her journey, one that was centered on faith and religion.
More than 20 years ago, memories of that upbringing welled up during an interview she’s never forgotten. It was with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who is a devout Muslim.
“All of a sudden, we’re talking about Islam,” Oliver said. “I got so lost in the conversation and so mesmerized. [Spirituality] — that’s my foundation. That’s who I am. I remember, just one of those times where I could have talked to him for two hours and forgotten about lights and the camera, and the producer who’s over there looking at his watch. He was such a gentle giant who is so powerful, and his beliefs, that’s what gave him his fuel. I was really, really interested in that. When people ask me one of my favorites, he’s one of my favorite interviews.
“I was raised like that,” Oliver said. “I feel so much better when I start my day with prayer and meditation. Or if I just need a lift at some point in my day, I’ll just sit. Be still. But I can’t say that every Sunday I’m in church, because every Sunday I’m pretty much around a football game. I do need that spiritual energy. It helps sustain me; it just helps me be calmer.”
Oliver does not take the title of trailblazer lightly, although she doesn’t look at herself as a larger-than-life personality.
“I like to think of myself as humble and down to earth, but I get it,” Oliver said. “I’ve been on the scene for a very long time. Young women reach out to me, and they express how they admire me and all that, and I take it very, very seriously, and I’m honored to be called that, but I feel like the trail had been blazed. Robin Roberts had already been on the scene. Cheryl Miller had already been on the sideline scene, but I understand. Different generations have come along and looked up to me. I’m 30 years in now. I honestly never take that for granted. I think it’s important to understand and embrace that people look up to you in that way.”
Oliver started at Fox Sports in 1995, and for the past 23 seasons she’s been reporting from the NFL sidelines. She’s worked eight Super Bowls. Oliver earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Florida A&M University, where she was an NCAA and Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women track and field All-American in both the 400-meter and the 4×400 relay. She was inducted into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
The historically black college experience was important for Oliver.
“My dad was in the military, so I’d grown primarily on all-white bases in my classrooms,” Oliver said. “I was like one of a couple of black people, so I wanted the opposite experience. I chose Florida A&M. I just wanted that experience, and when I got there it was a bit of shock the other way because I had not been in that environment completely with people that looked like me. I was like, ‘This is what I needed at that time.’ ”
FAMU is where Oliver first stepped into a men’s locker room as a reporter.
“These guys scattered, and I’m not all that comfortable either. So that was my first real experience, and I just decided at some point that it’s business,” Oliver said. “I’m going to go in. I’m going to carry myself accordingly and get what I need and get out. … They do deserve some privacy in that regard, so I always just try to be mindful with that. It’s their locker room, that’s their space.”
When Oliver graduated, she was hoping her career would lead to sports.
“There was so much resistance early on, and I said, ‘Well, since that’s not happening, I’ll just put all my energy and focus and commitment to news.’ But there was a time I was definitely discouraged. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I gained so much experience in news covering all different sorts of situations. Gubernatorial campaigns, murder trials, did a Trump rally for Pete’s sake. All of that is experience that helped you when you got to sports, where things happen fast and furious as well.”
The hardest part of Oliver’s journey was knowing the importance of balance.
“This was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “To be living this dream, it was important to me that I dedicated myself to it 110 percent. What I found as I went along was friendships were falling apart because I wasn’t nurturing them. I’d go too long without seeing my family. They were proud of me. They understood. It also impacted me because I didn’t have that kind of outlet. I was just all about work. It was just hectic. It was just what was required, I think at the time, to sort of rise in what you do. I looked at it as I just want to be better and better and better and I needed to dedicate myself to this completely. There are enough hours in the day to be able to say, ‘OK. I’ve done enough for today. Let me stop. Let me call my sister. Let me call my mom. Let me check on this friend. It’s been a while.’ That was probably the hardest thing.”
To help her through the daily grind, Oliver looks for inspiration wherever she can spot it. Whether it’s from a Maya Angelou book or speech, something Oprah Winfrey said or anything from Deepak Chopra.
She says she’s learned to let things unfold.
“I was so particular coming up in the business. I said, ‘I’ll be here for two years, and then I should probably go here in these increments.’ The minute I just let go, things just took off. Sometimes there’s a bigger plan for you than you could ever imagine. I think if I had just been a little bit more relaxed and more flexible and not so rigid.”
As NFL players changed the history by kneeling during the national anthem, Oliver had a firsthand view.
“I love it,” she said. “I feel like it’s about time, and those who do, I just give them crazy love because they are risking a lot of things and they are losing money and a couple of guys can’t get jobs, and I understand that it’s a tough decision. But we all at some point feel like, ‘There has got to be more I can do.’ I’m watching the news and you’re constantly seeing a black man shot in the back and pulled over or all of these incidents, and you just feel like, ‘What can I do?’
“I think when Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel that was powerful, and I’m glad that a couple of guys decided to embrace that and turn it into other things. Trying to get positive results, trying to get action as opposed to just kneeling, and I wish people would take five minutes to try to understand why. Why is this guy kneeling, why is he taking this chance? I think they may surprise themselves. You have to educate. You have to be informed to understand why these players are doing what they are doing, and I applaud them 100 percent. I think it’s awesome, and it makes me proud.“
Serving as a mentor to a couple of students in her life, she likes to remain connected.
“I’m very reachable and approachable,” Oliver said. “I’m just grateful to have sustained a career over this amount of time. You can’t take this stuff with you. Share it. Help somebody who just needs a little bit of guidance.”