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ESPN needs to keep Erin Andrews in the fold for reasons far beyond the field

As you read this, ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews is about to make history. But not in a way we normally expect from sports journalists.

Andrews is among the Top Three celebrities competing for the crown on ABC’s unscripted competition Dancing with the Stars, and tonight we’ll learn whether she takes home the show’s vaunted mirrorball trophy as a champion or falls somewhere behind Olympic skater Evan Lysecek or Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger.

We’ve seen professional athletes do well on the show before – auto racer Helio Castroneves, Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno and former NFL great Emmitt Smith all won in past seasons. But we may never have seen a sports journalist earn the level of personal celebrity needed to face off successfully in a televised dance contest that has already ejected the likes of Pamela Anderson, Kate Gosselin and Shannen Doherty.

We’ve seen athletes who cross over to become general interest celebrities, and we’ve seen some sports broadcasters whose work has earned them a certain level of status – say, Bob Costas, Dick Vitale or Howard Cosell.

But Andrews’ turn on Dancing signals something new; a sports journalist with tremendous amounts of fame whose celebrity isn’t necessarily connected to the reporting work she does.

In this way, Andrews’ larger legend seems a unique creation of our gossip-drenched media culture – a curious crossroads between TMZ, ESPN and reality TV. Leaving one question:

What does it mean for sports broadcasting when the woman who is arguably the most famous sports journalist of the moment is known for something other than her reporting?

Andrews insisted to me weeks ago that it doesn’t mean she’s angling to leave sports journalism for a career in the entertainment world, despite all the tabloid chatter about her wider opportunities.

“I’m not looking to get out of sports right now,” she said in an interview conducted just as Dancing with the Stars’ new season was starting. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m already excited for college football…That’s what I do for a living; I ask athletes questions about how they played.”

But that was before Andrews saw her celebrity skyrocket after months of competition on network TV’s second highest-rated show.

So the question arises: can ESPN keep this exploding star in the fold? And if so, will they find a better showcase for her than quizzing starstruck college football players on the edges of a game’s action?

As a media critic, what I find most compelling about Andrews is that so much of her notoriety involves how we react to her, apart from whatever job she is doing. In some ways, her career can be a Rorschach test for observers, allowing you to fill in your own issues about the nexus of sports, media, celebrity, beauty and fan attention.

Want to fret about the objectification of female sports reporters? Then observe how fans drawn by her tight clothing and beauty plastered her image across websites and magazines, earning her the nickname “Erin Pageviews.”

Worried about the implications of out-of-control fans? Then consider the unfortunate horror that unfolded last year, when a tech-savvy predator took nude videos of Andrews in hotel rooms through a peephole and leaked the footage online.

Suddenly, the sports world was asking questions about how female reporters were portrayed and the role of sideline reporters in coverage – issues disconnected from the need to find the predator who victimized Andrews and bring him to justice. By the time she told her story to media queen Oprah Winfrey, the whole mess had gone global.

And while the experience was dehumanizing, horrifying and debilitating for Andrews, it also pushed her into the cross-hairs of the tabloid media — a chattering, gossipy morass of outlets which bestowed new levels of fame, even as it spread bruising stories about her personal circumstances.

Given all this attention, it’s tough to blame Andrews for taking the opportunity to realize a longtime dream and compete on Dancing with the stars. Especially, now that she’s proven talented enough to land in at least third place, with a shot at winning it all.

It would be even tougher to fault her for leaping into the arms of Hollywood, cashing in her hard-earned fame with a move into an entertainment job, hosting an Access Hollywood-style news show or even acting. Once the big paychecks and larger opportunities loom, it’s tough to say no.

But win or lose tonight, I’m hoping Andrews and ESPN can figure out how to bring her back to sports reporting – using her newfound fame and influence to bust open a few doors for female sports journalists while bringing a few new eyeballs to the sports giant’s programming.

How about a show dedicated to making sports news fun for those who don’t know sports very well? Or crossover shows between ESPN and sister network ABC aimed at funneling her new generalized fan base over to the sports side?

Traditionalists may argue that Andrews seems to have been preparing for a career beyond sports for a while, and the last thing sports reporting needs is more distraction from the games and athletes than already exists.

But Andrews can be a powerful ambassador to viewers who rarely pay attention to such stuff. Along the way, she might also make an impact as a sports reporter equal to her impact on our zeitgeist as a celebrity and sometimes symbol.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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