Bonnie Bernstein is a pro’s pro.
I know … I know—how cliche. In this rare case, however, cliche works. In her nearly two decades as a sports broadcaster, Bonnie has established herself as something increasingly (and sadly) rare in today’s quirky media climate: A star who refuses to rely on stupid catchphrases or skimpy outfits; a skilled and savvy interviewer who would have excelled in any era of the medium.
A pro’s pro.
Now, having spent most of her career (covering pretty much everything) with ESPN and CBS, Bonnie is the “face” and vice president, content and brand development, of Campus Insiders, a digital collaboration between IMG College and Silver Chalice Ventures. She hosts hosts a daily show during the college football season and NCAA Basketball Championship, and will help create original programming.
Here, Bonnie defends college sports and recalls her days covering Michael Jordan; speaks lovingly of the land we call Howell, N.J. and details her battles with blood clots. You can visit her website here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Bonnie Bernstein, purveyor of the Collinsville Piggly Wiggly, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bonnie, I’m gonna start with one that will likely make you think, “Ugh, why did I agree to do this?” So you’re the face and VP of Content and Brand Development for Campus Insiders, a college sports digital network. Bonnie, I’m a former college athlete (if you count cross country) who abhors what big-time college sports have become. The money. The boosters. The NCAA raking in tons of dough on the backs of under-educated kids who, oftentimes, don’t belong where they are, academically. Obviously you’ve heard this sort of ranting before. So I ask—why would you want anything to do with college athletics (and especially football and basketball)? And why shouldn’t I view your operation as merely another way for people to make big bucks off of kids who will—with rare exception—see none of it?
BONNIE BERNSTEIN: Well, based on your—ahem—leading question, lol … I think we view the college landscape differently in some respects. I, too, am a former student-athlete. Walked on to the University of Maryland’s gymnastics team and was fortunate to earn a full scholarship. And I think it is, for that very reason, why I struggle with the mindset of some that athletes are getting raked over the coals. I know what it’s like to pay for college. I know what it’s like to hold down three jobs while maintaining my grades, get up at 6am several days a week to lift and do track workouts, then train my actual sport three hours a day. And I can tell you the burden lifted off my shoulders once I got my full ride was tangible.
That’s not to say I’m oblivious to the fact schools/conferences/the NCAA are making a crapload of money off athletes through merchandise and video games and the like; but make no mistake, kids on scholarship ARE getting paid. Ask anyone who’s still writing checks for student loans ten years past graduation. I don’t mind kids getting compensated for their John Hancock on a mini-helmet. Their name. Their brand. But providing a blanket stipend only to football and basketball players would open a massive Pandora’s Box. No way to construct a viable payment formula, especially because not every program runs in the black. And I suspect Title IX advocates would have something to say about it, as well.
The “paying athletes” conundrum aside, you and I can bond over our loathing of the shady side of college sports– the Nevin Shapiros of the world. The runners stalking seventh graders on public basketball courts. It makes me sick. But ultimately, I believe there’s a lot more good about college sports than bad.
Specific to Campus Insiders: While The Download with BB (my studio show) focuses quite a bit on the heavy hitters, we’re ramping up a live events platform showcasing non-BCS conferences like the Mountain West and the Patriot League and had a whole slate of West Coast Conference hoops games last year. In fact, one of the big FCS-over-FBS upsets this past weekend? Eastern Illinois over San Diego State. You could only see it on campusinsiders.com. We know there’s an appetite for this programming. And it’s not because these kids are generating millions in jersey sales for their schools. We’re excited to provide an outlet for them.
(PS… cross-country is 100% a sport, and a grueling one, at that!)
J.P.: You’ve had a career that, by any standards, has been wonderful and prolific and professional. You’ve clearly busted your ass, studied your craft, etc. Over the past, oh, decade, it seems as if televised sports media is turning increasingly to a female stereotype for reporting (and especially sideline work): Blonde, perky, young, large breasts, short-ish skirts. Am I just some pathetic guy noticing something that’s not really there, or am I right? And, if so, how much does this bother you?
B.B.: First of all… thanks! Check’s in the mail. Secondly… no idea what you’re talkin’ about. (I just tried to write that with a serious face. Lasted about two seconds.)
Listen—I’m not a fan of painting with broad brushstrokes. There are plenty of chicks on the air right now who are terrific. You wanna put the bullseye on the blondes? I can name two at ESPN off the top of my head who absolutely crush it: Sara Walsh. Lindsay Czarniak. Boom. Sam Ponder’s young, but a rising star who knows her football.
I’d like to think if you’ve been consistently credible over a period of time, you won’t get lumped in with the dingbats when they misstep. After 20+ years in the business, I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’m at that place. And if not, I’m still perky. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.
J.P.: You were born in Brooklyn, grew up on the mean streets of Howell, N.J. attended Maryland, where you were an Academic All-American gymnast. But (and I ask this on behalf of a lot of young readers who are aspiring journalists) how did you break through? What I mean is, we all have first jobs, we all have second jobs, we all have dreams. But what separates the reporter who spends his/her life at the local station vs. a Bernstein-esque career?
B.B.: Mean streets of Howell, huh? Well, our high school senior class president did get cuffed for having pot in his locker my freshman year…
I’d say drive, preparation, enough self-confidence to nullify the naysayers and a lil bit o’ luck. I, admittedly, was always doing two things at my local market jobs: busting ass to ascend the learning curve as quickly as possible and keeping an eye out for the next gig. Resume tapes constantly in circulation. Cold calling news directors in larger markets within driving distance and fibbing about “being in the area,” just to get in the door for a tape critique and a new contact in my Rolodex. My job never suffered. I worked insane hours at all of my local jobs; but I knew where I wanted to get and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. The goal was ESPN by 28 and one of the networks by 32. The WWL signed me just before my 25th birthday; CBS came knocking at 28. Mom always points out I was born nine days early J
J.P.: You were 25 when you joined ESPN as its Chicago Bureau Chief. You covered a ton of Michael Jordan. A. How did you land the gig? B. What was it like covering Jordan? How was he/the situation to deal with?
B.B.: When ESPN hired me out of Reno, NV, Dallas, Detroit and Chicago were on the table. I did lobby heavily through my agent for the Second City, but it was Bristol’s call. I’ll never forget the first time my boss, Jim Cohen, sent me out to get a Jordan interview. It was during training camp at the Berto Center in 1995 and I just walked up to him at a moment when he was alone, extended my hand and said sorta nonchalantly, “Heyyy, Michael, I’m Bonnie Bernstein, the new kid at ESPN. My boss told me to get a one-on-one with you. I’m set up right over there [pointed off to a corner of the court], just come on over whenever you’re ready.” And he looked at me, befuddled, as if to ask, “Who the hell are you??” But for whatever reason, he did the interview, and in my naivete, I was totally clueless about my little coup!
MJ was always extremely respectful. I think part of that had to do with my just being present. I’d often go to games I wasn’t working and listen to locker room interviews simply to show my face. Trust me, players notice that stuff. The following camp, Jordan passed me in the hallway and said, “I’ve been watching you on TV. You do a really good job.” I genuinely appreciate every kind word extended. But praise from the greatest player ever to grace the professional hardcourt was then, and still is, very special.
J.P.: It’s obviously well known in Hollywood that female actors have a MUCH harder time holding on than male colleagues. With age comes less work and, ultimately, no work (unless your name is Dench or Streep, I suppose). In a way, yours is the first era of myriad women reporters coming along at the same time, landing top jobs, being accepted as equals. Do you at all worry about becoming more disposable with age? That the network assheads will ultimately go for the perky 22-year-old with the fake blonde hair?
B.B.: “Disposable?” Now I feel like a diaper. Awesome.
Yeah. The hire younger/hotter/cheaper/less talented thing exists in some shops. But where does worrying about it get you? Worrying doesn’t solve anything. Worrying doesn’t address the issue. All worrying does is suck the energy out of you. And cause wrinkles.
I just think energy can be more constructively channeled developing your Plan B, which is what I’m doing at Campus Insiders. I’m not just on-camera, but behind the camera. And the great thing about the executive world? There’s no age discrimination. It’s an asset to be … seasoned! (A much more palatable descriptor than “disposable,” thank you) I get to tap my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Leverage my on-air portfolio, content expertise, and relationships in the corporate world to help build a business. It’s ridiculously energizing. And working with incredible people has sweetened the pot even more.
I think, too, it’s incumbent upon each of us—and this really isn’t gender specific—to explore our other passions, and you can obviously do that concurrent with your job or in its afterlife. I’ve always said at some point, I’d love to return to my music. I started playing piano at age five. Writing music a few years later. Played in four bands in high school (“So, like, this one time … in band camp …” that was me with my tenor sax). I love Broadway and the arts. And I’m building my philanthropic platforms on childhood obesity and DVT awareness. I’m not defined by my job. I love it, but I’m resourceful enough to feel I’ll always be able to find something to do. And get paid to do it. Hopefully.
J.P.: Soup to nuts, how do you work a Super Bowl? What I mean is, do you enjoy the experience? What’s your intensity like? And how do you avoid the seas of nonsense to report real, actual, detailed stories and information?
B.B.: From a game prep standpoint, Super Bowl really isn’t all that different from a regular season game. Read all the articles from each team’s local papers and the national columns. Study the pertinent stats. Aggregate the top tidbits from myriad interviews with players and coaches. Scribble all the potential storylines into a notebook. It can reach overkill with two weeks between conference championships and the grand finale, but at some point, you can’t absorb any more information and you go into the game with a knowledge-is-power sense of calm.
Like the players say: once the ball’s snapped, it’s just another game. But post-game? Insanity. As a sideline reporter, when that clock expires, you’re sprinting into a sea of confetti, trying to navigate players’ and coaches’ families and the media horde to nab guys on the fly. I have literally shoved (forcefully) other reporters out of the way, knowing the booth announcers are vamping until I yell to my producer “I’ve got so-and-so!” and he gives the command to throw it down to me. It’s a complete unmitigated fiasco. That said, there are few things in life I’ve experienced that mimic the adrenaline rush of athletic competition. Super Bowl post-game fits the bill.
J.P.: On October 11, 2006, you were diagnosed with life-threatening blood clots in both of your lungs. Bonnie, how did this happen? Like, what was the lead-up, when did you realize something was wrong, and when did you realize, “I might not survive this?” What, at age 36, was that like? The experience? And how did it change you?
B.B.: I’d just moved from CBS back to ESPN in 2006 and was working college football sideline Saturday, then dugout duty for Sunday Night Baseball. The upper part of my left leg was bugging me, but in typical athlete fashion, I iced it, stretched, took ibuprofen and waited for it to go away.
A week later, it hadn’t gone away. I was in Dallas covering the Texas-Oklahoma Red River Rivalry and my entire leg was throbbing. After the game, as the crew raced to our cars to hit the airport, I started having trouble breathing. By the time I boarded the plane, I knew I was dealing much more than a muscle pull.
I was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis and bi-lateral pulmonary emboli. Translation: a blood clot the full length of my leg that broke off and infiltrated both of my lungs. When the doc came to my room, he said, “I’m not sure how you’re still alive. The only thing I can think of is that you’re in great shape.”
Great. So I have a six-pack, but I’m practically dead. And that’s what upset me more than anything. I try to stay in decent shape and eat pretty well despite the demands of the job and, yet, it didn’t matter. I had several risk factors, including a family history of clots and frequent plane trips where my legs were bent for long periods. I was immediately admitted to the hospital and put on a blood-thinning IV. No flying for three weeks. I eventually moved off sideline and into the studio to reduce my travel schedule.
Has it changed me? Without question. Work, to that point, had always been the center of my universe. I constantly put my personal life on the backburner. Missed holidays, birthdays, weddings, important days in the lives of people I love. Don’t get me wrong—I still work really hard, but I’m not afraid to ask for time off to unwind, enjoy my life and share those special days.
J.P.: Along those lines, do you fear death? This is sorta random, I admit. But I often live in fear of dying; of my mortality and the certainty of eternal nothingness. Did you experience impact this at all? Can you think of nothingness and be OK with the idea? Or do all Jews go to heaven (please)?
B.B.: Of course all Jews go to heaven, Bubala…
(I don’t know what else to do right know other than channel my dead grandmothers. Hope that helps.)
I don’t fear dying, necessarily, as much as I fear developing another clot. The long-term psychosomatic issues have been kinda tedious. If I’m grinding at work and don’t have time to work out for several days and feel any sort of pain or throbbing in my leg or calf, I start worrying it’s back. Totally messes with your head. I don’t wanna go running to the doctor every time my leg hurts, but I also have to recognize once you’ve been diagnosed, the chance of recurrence exists.
That said, I really do believe everything happens for a reason. And I believe the reason I survived is to raise awareness about DVT/PE. It’s a condition that kills more Americans each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined, but it’s largely preventable. So, you, reading this: please do me a favor and click here to do a simple risk assessment test. If you have three or more risk factors, call your doctor immediately. Blood clots don’t just afflict the elderly. Trust me. I know. Thanks for listening.
J.P.: I recently took my son to a water park, and was blown away by A. The insane obesity; B. The insane fried food gorged upon by the obese people. You’ve made childhood obesity a major cause of yours. Is there any real fixing this problem? If so, how?
B.B.: Well, the obesity rates are starting to come down a little, so that’s encouraging. I think we’re finally at a point as a country where we recognize how severe a health crisis we have on our hands and how costly by-products of obesity such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease can be. I like to focus on the kids for two reasons: A) It breaks my heart to see children being bullied about their weight; B) If we can teach kids at an early age that exercise can be fun and good foods don’t necessarily taste “gross,” they’ll develop healthy lifestyle habits they take with them through life.
But it’s so important for parents to set the example and not send mixed messages by loading the fridge with junk while schools are providing nutritious meals. And I’d love the “portion control” discussion to be louder. I have chocolate every single day. But I have a little piece. Not a whole candy bar. Portion size is out of control in this country and while Mexico just surpassed the US as the most obese nation in the world, we’re not lagging far behind.
• Five reasons to make Howell, N.J. one’s next vacation destination?: My family lives there. And they’re awesome. And my mom’s an incredible cook. It’s 25 minutes from the Shore. Close enough to get to the beach; far enough that you probably won’t run into Snooky. Repeat answer No. 1 three more times
• Ever thought you were about to die in a place crash? If so, what do you recall?: White knuckling on a prop plane in bad weather to Blacksburg for a piece on Virginia Tech’s lunch pail defense. Pail on the plane woulda come in handy …
• I thought about attending Maryland. I picked Delaware instead. Why did I make a mistake?: I’ll spare you the Blue Hen jokes. Because I care.
• In 45 words of less, your most embarrassing moment from your career?: Pretty self-deprecating, so don’t embarrass easily. I beat myself up for mispronouncing one word in a three hour live broadcast. But that probably doesn’t count (Nineteen words left. Ha!)
• Would you rather marry John Rocker or spend the next 15 years working as the beat writer for Tulsa’s leading supermarket trade magazine?: “Multiple sources confirm a major spill in Aisle 5 at the Collinsville Piggly Wiggly…”
• Rank in order (favorite to least): B&G Pickles, Shea Seals, New Edition, Don McPherson, Cher, Jimmy Connors, Lo-Bak Trax, Joe Posnanski, crushed pineapple, Six Flags, ear wax, Shea Stadium, Marshall’s, my mother (Joan Pearlman): Your mom. Duh; Shea (who did orange seats better than that place?); Six Flags; Crushed Pineapple; B&G Pickles (Kosher Dill, please.); New Edition (“Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike…”); Don McPherson; Cher; Jimmy Connors; Joe Posnanski; Shea Seals; Marshall’s; Lo-Bak Trax; Ear Wax.
• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever covered: Chad Pennington, Jerome Bettis, Robin Ventura, Cal Ripken, Steve Kerr/Jud Buechler (I count Steve and Jud as one, because they were attached at the hip)
• Three memories from your Bat Mitzvah (if you didn’t have one, we’ll take the senior prom): No Bat Mitzvah (long story, it’ll be in the book …). Senior prom, I blew out my ankle in gymnastics a couple weeks before and was in a cast. I spray painted my cast black to match my dress, wrapped black velvet around my crutches and bedazzled them with rhinestones before “bedazzling” was ever cool. It was a hit!
• Do you think Dottie Hinson intentionally dropped the ball in the final scene of A League of Their Own?: 100% yes. There was nothing Dottie loved more than baseball. And that’s why she was so competitive with Kit. But once she realized how badly her sister wanted the win, something kicked in. And family took precedence over the glory of the game. To me, that moment added real depth to her character.