NBC Sunday Night Football sideline reporter Michele Tafoya knew she wanted to be on camera from an early age. What began as childhood acting aspirations ultimately evolved into a celebrated career in sports reporting — one that has spanned radio and television; college and pro; and basketball, football, volleyball and the Olympic Games. The 53-year-old California native has called the Twin Cities home for nearly a quarter of a century, ever since a job at KFAN sports radio brought her to the frozen tundra. She swore she’d leave within a year, but the North stole her heart. We sat down with Tafoya for a no-holds-barred conversation about such hot-button topics as national anthem protests, athletes behaving badly and CTE in the NFL.
At your first job at a radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina, you opted to use the name “Mickey Conley.” What factored into that decision?
“Mickey” was my cohost’s decision. I was there as Michele. But he thought Mickey was catchier, so that our show could be called “Jerry V. and the Mick.” “Conley” happened because they didn’t think Tafoya was going to work well; they thought it was too ethnic. So I used my mom’s maiden name. At that time, I was just hell-bent on getting a job, so I just kind of went along with it. But when I took my next job here in Minneapolis at KFAN, I said, “I’m going by Michele Tafoya and that’s it.”
Your career is full of firsts, like being the first woman to call an NCAA Tournament game. Did you set out to be a trailblazer?
No, I didn’t. And I still don’t consider myself a trailblazer. I look at Lesley Visser and Robin Roberts, who were ahead of me. I’m one of the longest standing, which just means I’ve hung in there. But no, that wasn’t my intent. I just loved sports and wanted to be a broadcaster, so I thought this was a great marriage. I saw those women and I thought, “I’m going to do that.”
You’re also one of the first female reporters to go into NBA and NFL locker rooms. At some point did that become routine?
I vividly remember my first locker-room experience. It was an NBA locker room. This security guard opened the door and said, “Lady in the locker room.” I went in and walked right toward this player, and I was looking at his eyebrows — I had what I called the “eyebrow rule,” where I looked at guys’ eyebrows so I could never be accused of looking anywhere else — so I didn’t realize he was naked. When I asked to talk to him, the guy sitting next to him said, “Let the man get dressed first.” So I turned around and stared at the floor and waited.
Even now, I respect the players, and I know that they’re not altogether comfortable with it. And there’s a huge double standard. Men can’t go into WNBA locker rooms. Men can’t go into a pro tennis women’s locker room. And yet we can go into men’s. I understand that it’s an intrusion to them, and I respect that. So I’ve always been very cautious when I go in: how I comport myself, where my eyes are, all of that.
Can you recall your most embarrassing moment on the job?
It was during the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska was playing Florida. I start doing my sideline report, and I’m sticking to my report, looking at my notes. Meanwhile, a big play is breaking out on the field. And Jim Nantz — bless his heart — has to just interrupt me to call the play. It was very embarrassing.
Lawrence Phillips was the running back on the play, and he had gotten in trouble that year for domestic abuse. Nebraska reinstated him, and it was a big controversy. So then post-game I’m interviewing Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne, and I say to him, “Is this victory made sweeter by the circumstances surrounding it?” He did not like that question. And there were people who told me I shouldn’t have asked that question. But my thoughts were, “How can I not ask that question?” I definitely got beat up for that one.
On the flip side, what are your proudest professional achievements?
I’ve won two Emmys as a sports reporter. I’m very proud of the group that helped me earn those; we earned them together. I could not do my job without the great people who support me.
One was for covering when Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field at halftime as he was heading into the locker room in 2013. Suddenly I’m no longer covering a sports story; I’m covering breaking news. I’m really proud of the way we handled it, and I’m proud I was able to rise to the occasion. We really didn’t know what we were watching; we didn’t know if this guy was going to die on the spot in front of us. We had to tell the story accurately and quickly, but we couldn’t make any mistakes. I’m very proud of that.
I can’t believe I’ve done as many games as I have. I have a drawer full of my credentials for every single event I’ve ever done, and it’s staggering. So I guess I’m proud of my longevity, especially for a woman. Al Michaels is still broadcasting — I won’t say how old you are, Al — but I’m not going to be able to do that. Men can do that. That’s just how it is, fair or unfair.
How has the industry changed over the years?
There’s a lot more of it. When I started, ESPN was really the only full-time sports network. Now you’ve got NBCSN, Fox Sports, FS1, the Big Ten Network, NFL Network, NBA TV, MLB Network, all the regionals — it’s almost too much. With that much more content out there, there are more people working, which is great. But it’s also splintered the audience.
And you see a lot more women doing sports these days. I think that’s great, but I will also raise my hand and say that the most qualified person should have any job, whether male or female. I think for the most part that’s how it happens, but there’s still an impulse to throw a woman on the broadcast. Do it if she’s right for it, absolutely, but don’t do it for the sake of having a woman on the broadcast.
What’s your position on players kneeling during the national anthem?
We all have a First Amendment right, and I consider that their First Amendment right. I’ve talked with some of these guys in depth about why they’re doing it, so I understand what they’re trying to do. But I think their message has gotten lost among all the vitriol.
Personally, I love the anthem; I love that moment. I sing it at the games with my hand on my heart. I know these players don’t mean to disrespect the flag, that they’re trying to garner attention, but optics are important. For a lot of fans, it appears that they are disrespecting the flag and the people who fight for it. I think we are spending a lot more time talking about the issues, which is good. But in this time of such division, I would love to see more unity on the field.
So the football field isn’t the right platform for these social-justice protests?
I think there are better platforms. I would encourage these guys to use other platforms: social media, radio, television. A lot of these guys are doing that now, and I commend them.
Also, it’s not so much the football field — it’s the national anthem, what to me is a very unifying moment. I did the first Monday night game after 9/11. It was in Green Bay, and every single person in Lambeau had a flag. When the anthem was sung that night, it was extraordinary. And that’s what it’s about: I don’t care who you are or where you’re from — this is what we all have in common.
How do your political views — pro-choice conservative with libertarian leanings — factor into your stance on this?
I’m sure they factor in. My political views are solely based on my values. I value a woman’s right to choose within a respectable period of time. I don’t like massive government because I think that makes each individual so much smaller. I really respect each and every person’s rights. If you’re a free person living in a free society, the only thing you can’t do is hurt someone else. So yes, every decision I make is based on my values. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to the other side. I want to understand, and I want to be open to that.
What are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s collusion grievance?
I think it’s going to be difficult to prove that the league is colluding against one player. It’s a game where results matter, so if you’re not producing results on the field, you might get cut. It happens all the time.
At one time, Colin was playing really, really well, but that has tapered off. So he’s not on a roster right now. I do think some teams don’t necessarily want the baggage and attention that would come with signing him. But that doesn’t equate to collusion. Collusion means the owners are saying to each other, “Let’s shut him out. Let’s all agree we’re not going to hire him.” I happen to know franchises that brought him in and interviewed him.
Again, this goes back to my values. As a private business, you have the right to hire and fire whomever you like. You can’t discriminate, but I don’t know what they’d be discriminating against with Colin. His political views? No, you can’t do that. It’s about performance. I think he’s going to have a very difficult time proving this. Unless there’s some paper trail that I don’t know about, and I’d be surprised if there were.
What’s your take on pro athletes behaving badly, particularly as it relates to domestic violence?
I think professionals in all industries behave badly. There are bad apples in entertainment, in government, in corporate America and in sports. I think the league has adjusted its rules accordingly; in some cases, it has underreacted and maybe in a couple cases overreacted.
But if a player is accused of something and charges aren’t pressed, I don’t know why there needs to be an additional look at the situation. The legal system is the law of the land. Then again, if you have a player behaving badly who’s representing your league, you’ve got to make a decision about that.
On a personal level, it just pains me to think about anyone being abused. I think we all need to come to the realization that there’s a lot of domestic violence in the world. And people have to intervene and help. So again, I don’t know that it happens more in sports than in any other industry. I just don’t think it’s acceptable anywhere.
Do pro athletes get special treatment in the court of public opinion?
Sure. It’s impossible for that not to happen. That happens in Hollywood, too. It happens with celebrity in general; you tend to get the benefit of the doubt.
But I will tell you that pro athletes are also the subject of major public scrutiny. A guy can fumble in a game and get death threats. That’s not an exaggeration. So there are pluses and minuses that go along with this. You might get a little advantage over here, but believe me when I tell you that these guys are often treated like automatons rather than human beings.
Do you have concerns about the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in retired NFL players?
Of course. But I do want to point out that while we have all this research on pro football players who’ve donated their brains, we don’t have research on non–pro football players — you, me, our parents, the guy walking down the street. We don’t have a control group to compare against. What if we start looking at hockey players? Polo players? There’s a possibility we all might have some amount of CTE. There are a lot of unknowns.
Of course it’s concerning. Growing up, I always thought, “Someday I’m going to have a little boy, and he’s going to play football. And I’m going to love it.” And I have a little boy [her 12-year-old son, Tyler], and he’s playing football. I definitely get nervous. And I pretty much told him, “If you have one concussion, we’re done.”
And look, I’ve had talks with John Madden and Bill Parcells, two Hall of Fame coaches, who told me, “Michele, wait until he’s 13.” Then my late father-in-law, who coached at the University of Minnesota, told me, “Michele, they’re too small to hurt each other.”
So far, I haven’t seen a kid get hurt in these games. And Tyler loves it. So what am I supposed to do? I’ve said to him, “We’ve got to think about the long term here.” And I’m very open with him: “Here’s what happened to this guy. Here’s what happened to that guy.” He has said to me, “I’ll do whatever’s best for me and best for my health.” So far so good.
Should the NFL be doing more to protect its players against concussions and CTE?
The league is doing a lot now. It is investing a lot of time and money into developing helmets that will better protect players’ heads. It’s been changing the rulebook to make it safer. I have to believe the league is trying to do all it can, because it knows what’s at stake.
There’s also a growing understanding that health is way more important than hard hits. Because it’s not just whether you use your head in a tackle. If a quarterback gets sacked, he’s often falling backward and you see his head go ba-boom on the ground. And that’s where this concern comes in, the cumulative effect of that.
I think at this point the league is much more concerned about health than it is about fans saying, “I want hard-hitting football.” Of course, the league also doesn’t want to turn the game into something it’s not. So there is a balancing act, but I think it’s leaning more toward safety than anything else.
Sometimes I’m standing there — I’m just so close to the action — and I see a running back running through a bunch of guys trying to tackle him. And I’m looking at his ankles, I’m looking
at his knees, and I’m thinking, “How is he not breaking in half right now?”
These guys just love the game that much. I’m sure they love the compensation that goes along with it, too. But honestly, the stuff they’re willing to put their bodies through is astonishing. You have to love something in order to put your body through that and risk your health every single minute of that game.
Some of these lawsuits are claiming, “The league knew about CTE and hid it from us.” I think that’s going to be hard to prove. If you don’t know as a player or a parent that ramming into another human being with your head might give you a concussion — I think each player is taking their own responsibility when they sign up for that.
And I don’t know that you can prove that it’s the NFL’s responsibility. What about the college you played for? What
about the high school you played for? What about the Pop Warner league you played for? The NFL’s where all the money is, so of course they’re going after the league. But I’m not sure you can prove that the league actually knew and hid it.
Beth Mowins made history last year when she became the first woman in three decades to call an NFL game. What did that signify for you?
First of all, it signified that Beth really earned it. She works very hard, and she has worked very diligently at calling games. I don’t think anyone deserved it more than Beth.
It also signified to me that, based on the reaction, there’s still a large audience out there that’s not ready for it. But I think we’re seeing a shift there, and it’s good. There’s no reason a woman shouldn’t call a game, and Beth’s perfectly qualified to do it. I do think it shows that the gates are opening. I’ve always wanted to call an NBA game. I’m not really involved with that league anymore, so I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance. But I do think this is a positive sign.
Do you ever get tired of fielding questions about being a female sports reporter?
It depends how the question is phrased. You phrased it well, because you advanced it. You said, “Do you get tired of it?” not “What’s it like in a man’s world?” I’m not into identity politics, so “a woman in a man’s world” doesn’t work for me.
I’m a woman, yes. And it’s predominately men, yes. But that doesn’t make it their world. It’s not that black and white to me. I’m doing a job. The short answer is yes, sometimes I do, but it comes with the territory.
What predictions do you have for Super Bowl LII?
I think it’s going to be a smashing success, because Minnesota does a great job playing host. It matters to this state. We’re friendly, we’re warm, we want to make everyone feel welcome and make sure everyone has a good time.
I have zero predictions about the game and who will be in it. We’ve been seeing major players get injured, basically eliminating their team’s chances of going very far. You go into a season thinking, “The Patriots have got it this year.”
Then all of a sudden you stop and say, “What is going on? Nothing is happening how I thought would.” The Titans are way better than we thought they’d be. Oakland’s struggling. You think you know what’s going to happen, but you don’t.
Do you favor any teams or do you stay above the fray?
I stay above it. And it’s one of the most freeing, most liberating things I’ve ever done. I grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan in the age of Joe Montana; I hung on every play. And emotionally, it can tear you apart. Just ask any Vikings fan.
But I will say this: You develop relationships over the years, and I’ve gotten to know coaches and players. So if one of those guys is having a good game, I’m happy for them. If a team I have a good relationship with makes it to the playoffs, I’m happy for them. But I don’t have a rooting interest.
Let’s get personal: You’ve endured multiple miscarriages. What was that time in your life like? Why has it been important to speak about it publicly?
It was the worst time of my life. My husband’s, too. I had the first miscarriage and I thought, “OK, I hear everyone has one now and then.” After the second one, I remember apologizing to my husband, because I felt responsible. I’m seven years older than he is, so I felt like my age was a factor. And it was — the science will tell you. There are biological reasons for it, and it’s as simple as that.
So I said to my husband, “We should pursue in vitro. We’re not getting any younger.” And I think we only got one good embryo. That embryo miraculously split, so we had identical twins going. Then I lost those. I’ve never seen my husband so despondent. And I realized he had been strong for me all along, so it was my turn.
After we lost the twins, which was depressing enough, we did another round of in vitro, but we didn’t get any good embryos. Then I found out my husband’s sister was pregnant. It felt like everyone was getting pregnant except me. They’re all happy, and you’re living with a kind of pain that is indescribable. I felt like, “I can’t do the most basic biological thing that a woman is supposed to be able to do.” It was the lowest of low.
Then we started investigating donor eggs. We did the counseling, and they were starting to look for a match for us. I remember that spring we were in Hawaii for the NFL owners meetings, and I was exhausted. I thought, “Gosh, this sun and the time change are just killing me.”
When we got back home, I ran out and got a pregnancy test. I didn’t even tell my husband. I took the test and found out I was pregnant. This was without donor eggs — this was just natural. And I wept like a child.
For whatever reason, nothing was going to make me unhappy that day. And I thought, “Why are you letting yourself be joyful? You’ve been through this so many times. You’ve lost them all. What makes you think this is different?” And I didn’t necessarily think it was different; I just was not going to let anyone take away my joy that day.
We decided not to say a word about it to anybody. Because the other part of infertility is that everyone tries to give you advice: “You need to drink green tea with a brown sugar cube in it.” I’m not kidding. Someone once told me, “I got pregnant at this little bed and breakfast in Wisconsin, and the bed was facing this way. I’ll give you the address.” Honest to God.
We did the amniocentesis to make sure everything was good. I got the call from the doctor’s office, and she said, “You’re all good. Do you want to know the sex?” And then she told me it was a boy. Everything we had lost had been boys. I could weep right now thinking about it.
I was so nervous. I actually rented a heartbeat monitor, and every day I listened to the heartbeat. It was the most soothing, beautiful, reassuring sound in the world. And Tyler was just a miracle — that’s all there is to it.
We decided after that that we wanted to have more. And I said, “Well, what are we going to do?” We didn’t want to go through that roller coaster again. Then my husband said, “You know what? Now we get to adopt.” Not “have to,” but “get to.” Because of my Hispanic background, we looked at Colombia. That was a two-and-a-half-year odyssey, but Olivia was worth every minute of the wait.
You asked me why it’s important to talk about it — because I know what it’s like to feel that depressed, that hopeless. And I want people to know that there are options. Everyone thinks, “I want to have my own child.”
But let me tell you, it’s really OK. I’ve seen parents stand up in front of an audience of people who want to adopt and say, “I’m so glad we couldn’t have children, because I never would have met these two.” Fathers openly weep telling you, “The best thing that ever happened to us was adopting these children.” So I just want people to know that, because I don’t want them to feel hopeless. Because there’s always hope. There’s always a way to build a family. Always.
If you weren’t a sports reporter, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be in television or film production. Before I started on air, I worked in Hollywood and Universal City doing production management. I liked it.
Do you have any political aspirations?
The fact that I’m even hesitating would suggest yes. But my husband really would not like that life. If you’re a politician, you’ve got a lot of barbs coming your way, and your family gets sucked into that. Right now, no one can say, “That evil sideline reporter wants to take away my welfare.” But if you’re a politician, you’re in the spotlight in a very different way. It matters to me how things go at a state and national level — it really matters to me. I’ll just have to find a way to affect change where I’m not actually in office.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.