Posted: Friday February 17, 2006 1:14PM; Updated: Saturday February 18, 2006 8:04PM
So Bernstein acted. She walked away from a killer gig, secretly resigning in November (effective at the conclusion of last season) with three years remaining on her contract. Then, after completing her final assignment, last month's AFC Championship Game, Bernstein, to her great surprise, felt the full force of being a woman in a man's world. As Super Bowl XL approached, lascivious rumors of the supposed reasons behind her departure began flying around journalism circles and gossipy Web sites.
"You know what we say, tongue-in-cheek, in our business: 'Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?'" Bernstein said on Wednesday. "Well, this is the quintessential example of that. The funny thing is, the lies being concocted were so out of whack, so farcical, I was waiting to show up on the cover of the Weekly World News, right next to the picture headlined, 'Soap Star Pregnant with Alien Triplets.'"
This is Bernstein's way of trying to laugh off a nightmarish situation, one that capped an emotionally trying year in which she ultimately gained the courage, at 35, to make a major career shift. In addition to starting a new company, Velvet Hammer Media, that focuses on mentoring aspiring broadcasters, Bernstein is exploring job possibilities in sports and news reporting with various radio, television and new-media entities. But because she left her CBS gig suddenly and quietly -- and, of course, because she's a pretty face in a morass of facemasks -- Bernstein soon discovered that everyone from friends to prospective employers were hearing speculative whispers about her decision.
"Maybe it was my naivete," Bernstein says, "but after being at the network level for 11 years, I thought I had established credibility, not only with sports fans, but also with my colleagues. I don't know that if a man left that there would be as much room to speculate as to the reasons beyond his own explanation. With a woman, you can go in so many different directions."
As Web sites and media outlets scrambled this week to retract their reports of the rumors about Bernstein, she spent more than an hour detailing the events that led her to give up her gig. It didn't help that earlier this month the Los Angeles Times and other publications erroneously reported that Bernstein had been forced out of her job. "She was never fired," says CBS spokesperson Leslie Anne Wade, the network's vice president of communications. "That is simply not true."
In fact, Bernstein had entertained the notion of leaving CBS as early as two years ago, when she became frustrated over the network's philosophical approach to the sideline reporter's role. As one of her longtime CBS colleagues says, "Bonnie is kind of overqualified for what she was doing. She prepared meticulously for every game as if she'd be on the air for all 60 minutes of the action. When it turns out you're only on three or four times, for a [combined] minute and 20 seconds, it gets a little frustrating."
This was especially significant for Bernstein, who takes her job as seriously as most NFL coaches. A former gymnast at Maryland, the otherwise affable Bernstein has a game face that can be unnerving even to those who know her reasonably well, as I've discovered during many a pregame lap around the sidelines of various stadiums. She relies on the same ferocious drive that propelled her from a post-college job reading news and sports clips on a country music station in Lewes, Del., to a TV news gig in Reno, to ESPN by the time she was 25. And she was not shy about lobbying her CBS producer, Lance Barrow, for on-air opportunities.
Before each NFL game, Bernstein joined Simms, play-by-play man Jim Nantz and other key production personnel in meetings, both formal and informal, with players and coaches from each team. She says she went into a typical game with 25 story ideas, "not including what I see on the field during a game, injury reports and pregame, halftime and postgame interviews that are a function of what happens on game day. And on the average, I would get on the air four times, maybe six on a really good day. It took a while for me to learn how not to take it personally, but when my bosses looked at the sideline reporter's role, it was not one of substance."