Michele Tafoya has certainly gotten to know the Eagles.
Tafoya, NBC’s sideline reporter on Sunday Night Football, has covered the Birds twice already this season, and will again report on the team from Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field.
Despite Tafoya’s familiarity with the Eagles, one player she didn’t pay much attention to in her previous coverage has suddenly become the main story line for Saturday’s matchup: quarterback Nick Foles, who will start in place of injured phenom Carson Wentz.
“Obviously, it’s a much different matchup with Foles changing the dynamic of this game,” Tafoya said. “All I keep thinking of is Foles versus that Falcons defense, with a secondary that’s just flying around out there. I’m so curious to speak to him.”
Tafoya’s return to covering the Eagles also will allow her to reconnect with some of her favorite players, such as Fletcher Cox. Tafoya said she has developed a relationship with him following an emotional discussion in 2015 after the loss of his brother.
“He’s just this huge, sweet teddy bear that turns into a wrecking ball on game day,” she said.
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Tafoya and Sunday Night Football colleagues Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will travel to Philadelphia on Thursday to meet with the Eagles and watch practice. On Friday, they’ll do the same with the Falcons. On Saturday, it’ll be game day.
While her duties will be similar, Tafoya said her preparation changes for playoff games, in which the broadcast becomes more focused on moment-to-moment stories such as injuries and substitutions versus the personality pieces normally weaved into broadcasts.
The cutting room floor
Tafoya conceded that it’s frustrating when she has great interviews that don’t end up in the broadcast. She gets less than 30 seconds for each report, which forces her to be succinct. And her spots can be killed or adjusted because of breaking news, television breaks, or something else running slightly long.
One such scrapped moment happened when Tafoya spoke to running back Jay Ajayi ahead of the Eagles’ first Sunday Night Football game of the season, against the Broncos (Tafoya also covered the team’s Nov. 19 game against the Cowboys). Unfortunately, Ajayi didn’t realize the Eagles PR staff had patched Tafoya in while he was driving.
“I just hear Jay yelling at a car next to him on the highway, ‘You don’t have your lights on! You don’t have your lights on!’” Tafoya recalled. “It was a revealing moment to me, considering he was someone who got a bad rap as someone who’s maybe a little self-centered. He was clearly looking out for the situation there, and that made me laugh.”
Tafoya has been a sideline reporter on NBC for 11 seasons. Before, she spent more than a decade at ABC and ESPN. She has covered numerous Super Bowls, the NBA and the Olympics (which she’ll do again this year). One thing she hasn’t done is step into the booth to call NFL games — but that’s not a job she’s interested in.
“I think the NFL rule book is sort-of like the tax code — it’s insanely complicated,” Tafoya said. “That’s something you’ve just got to have down pat as an announcer, and quite frankly, that doesn’t interest me. That just seems like a lot of work for very little reward.”
Open about politics
Unlike many of her sports-media colleagues, Tafoya is pretty open when it comes to politics, describing herself as a pro-choice conservative with “some definite libertarian strains.” On Twitter, she offered support for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, something that would have earned her a rebuke by ESPN (NBC just asked her to remove “NBC Sports” from her Twitter bio).
“I think the entire world could use a change in their tone. It’s so bitter and it’s so angry and it’s so personal that, to me, we’ve lost sight of so much,” Tafoya said. “The way we throw words around these days like white supremacy, and racism, and evil, it’s as though it’s just easier to throw those out and drop the mic rather than have a really thoughtful conversation based on fact and listening to one another.
Tafoya made it clear she wasn’t speaking about anyone in particular, but her comments alluded to remarks made on Twitter by SportsCenter host Jemele Hill, who earned a rebuke from the White House after calling President Trump a “white supremacist.” New ESPN personality Katie Nolan received a warning from the network last week after calling Trump a “stupid person.”
“I think everyone is entitled to an opinion, and I think there are obviously a lot of really smart, passionate people on the air doing sports,” Tafoya said. “But it’s also become pretty obvious to me that the audience today needs sports, more than ever, as an escape, because the other stuff is everywhere you turn.”
That doesn’t mean NBC is shying away from covering players who protest racial injustice during the national anthem. Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of Sunday Night Football, has confirmed that the network will show players who kneel during NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Tafoya praised Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins on the way he’s handled protesting this season, and said she admired his willingness to do ride-alongs with police officers, speak to people in maximum-security prisons, and visit Pennsylvania’s Capitol.
“Malcom is a real leader among NFL players in how he’s moving the ball forward, and not just screaming at the top of one’s lungs,” Tafoya said. “He’s hoping to play in the Super Bowl, but after that, he really is excited about getting together with his NFL counterparts from around the league and getting something done.”