Jennifer Hale is a study in contrasts.
The Fox Sports sideline reporter, who will work Sunday’s Saints-Tampa Bay game in her chosen hometown of New Orleans, is an LSU honors college graduate in political science who also earned a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University and spent time on a fellowship in Germany studying U.S.-German relationships since the fall of Communism.
Some serious cap-and-gown stuff there.
But while at LSU, Hale also was a cheerleader, homecoming queen and Miss LSU who won the swimsuit competition in the Miss Louisiana pageant.
Some not-so-serious stuff, depending on your point of view.
In fact, she was once advised to omit that part from her résumé.
“Well, why not do all of it?” the French Quarter resident said, responding to those who wonder about the dichotomy of her experiences. “If you enjoy it, why not play both sides, so to speak?
“There’s no reason to fall into one defined category, especially in college.”
What about now?
Before moving to Fox in 2011, where for the past two years she has been a sideline reporter for Pelicans broadcasts as well as NFL games, Hale spent 11 years in TV as an anchor, political reporter and morning show co-host. She also wrote a travel book on historic plantations in Alabama and has her own foundation (Sideline Pass, which works to empower high school-age girls).
But then there’s that red leather dress — the one Hale wore for the Pelicans’ playoffs-clinching victory against San Antonio.
“Well, that was pushing the envelope a little for me,” Hale said of the dress, which was actually more than 25 years old and belonged to the mother of the owner of Violet’s Boutique, which provides Hale with her on-air outfits. “And I would imagine it’s probably as daring as I’ll ever get. But it was one of the best dresses I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing, and it was definitely fun.”
And there you have it.
In 2015, no matter how qualified a woman may be, more than likely, she’s still going to be judged by her looks in at least equal measure.
“People are always wanting to put you into one little box based on just a few facts,” Hale said. “If I just said (I was a) cheerleader and homecoming queen, you might write me off as someone who couldn’t spell her own name.
“But if I said full scholarship to LSU, partial scholarships to Northwestern and Georgetown, you’d put me in a different box. It’s a shame to categorize people that way — women or men.”
Especially when you’re very good at what you do.
The competition for network sideline reporter jobs is as intense as it is for roster spots in the NFL — maybe more so because there are only a handful of them. The shelf life for many sideline reporters isn’t much longer, either.
“You can be one of the best, but they’re always looking for somebody younger and cheaper,” said Hale, who at 39 isn’t quite to that over-the-hill point. “I don’t think they necessarily replace you when you reach a certain age, but it’s definitely different from news.”
That’s what happened at Fox a year ago when then-53-year-old Pam Oliver was bumped to the No. 2 broadcast team when the network elevated Erin Andrews, who is a year younger than Hale, to the first unit.
But Mike Burks, producer of the broadcast team that includes Hale, Chris Myers and Ronde Barber, says Hale isn’t going anywhere soon.
“I think Jen’s unique in this group of people, because she has journalistic skills, especially in knowing how to tell a story,” he said. “She can edit herself to time, which is critical, and she has a great vocabulary and ability to put a sentence together.
“I have great trust for what she’s going to put on the air, and I’ve worked with others I can’t say that about. Jen’s not just a good-looking girl on the sidelines.”
All one has to do is listen to Hale break down the Saints storylines for this week to know Burks is correct:
“Replacing Jimmy Graham, whether with one person or a variety of persons, remains a priority. I would like to see Benjamin Watson more involved like Brandon Coleman was last week. And Mark Ingram has to prove that he can keep it up as both a runner and receiver, game in and game out. I’m wondering when we’ll see C.J. Spiller, too.”
One other thing: Guys don’t seem to mind talking to Hale, either.
That especially seems true in the chemistry Hale has built with Anthony Davis, whom she usually interviews immediately following a Pelicans victory.
While Davis usually approaches his postgame media obligations with world-weariness, he becomes very animated with Hale, who has witnessed him grow on camera from a shy, almost-mumbling teenager.
“I know, if we win, I’m probably going over there to talk to her, so it’s just like second nature,” Davis said. “When I’m tired, she’ll give me a break before she asks me a question.
“So we have that kind of great connection. I love having her around.”
But, Hale cautions, people should never read anything more into her relationship with Davis — or any other athlete.
“When I was a news reporter, I could have lunch with a lobbyist or a legislator or a city councilman, and no one would question its appropriateness,” she said. “But I could never do that with a coach or a player.”
For that reason, among others, Hale said she came to sports in her 30s (the Saints sent in a tape of her doing sideline interviews during LSU games, which she’d done as a favor for the athletic department website). The late start in sports was an advantage because it gave her a maturity that in those situations she might not have had a decade before.
“I was a trained serious journalist who’d cut my teeth covering the legislature,” she said. “I knew how to handle myself and definitely wasn’t star-struck.
“No matter who you are, male or female, you have to prove yourself. But I think the players look on me as an older sister.”
Hale’s résumé has given her cachet as a rising star in her profession.
But for now she is content to remain in New Orleans, where her previous local celebrity — she did the early morning show on WVUE, Fox 8 — has made her an in-demand emcee and spokeswoman.
Sort of an Angela Hill for the 21st century.
“I love being out the community,” Hale said. “I’m not married and I don’t have any children, so the city is my family.
“People see me and they all feel like they know me. They’ll even tell me, ‘You’re a lot thinner than you look on TV.’ ”
But Hale — who originally intended to be an attorney — said New Orleans and Fox Sports are not necessarily her final destinations.
“I’ve learned never to close a door, and I’ll probably have to reinvent myself several times,” she said. “Every election year I miss covering politics. But I never imagined myself doing this either.
“I pinch myself every day because this is a dream come true.”