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When asked if the controversy had to do with the fact that she is a woman, Gardner says, "That's a fair question. I can't answer it."
Everyone concerned has been tainted with sexism. NBC Sports executive producer Terry O'Neil came under fire when he dismissed the division's lone female producer. Ebersol was perhaps an easy mark after his famous decision to replace Jane Pauley on Today with the younger and blonder Deborah Norville. Ebersol calls the charges against him and O'Neil "searing" and unfair, yet he acknowledges that NBC Sports must increase its number of women and minority employees; out of a staff of 32, six are women and five are minorities. "In a year you will see that doubled," Ebersol says.
While Ebersol and O'Neil acquired reputations as sexists, Gardner was said to be something almost as insidious: "hard to work with." Industry gossips whispered that she was a tantrum-thrower, forgetting that she got on amicably with her colleagues at ESPN. Since Gardner has been back on air regularly, the rumors have ceased, and, according to others at NBC, she has been pleasant to work with.
"Do I demand good work around me? Absolutely," Gardner says. "Am I a prima donna? No way. Do I show up on time? Yes. Am I prepared? Yes. Do I respect my coworkers? Yes. Have I ever yelled? Who in this business hasn't?"
Ebersol denies that he purposely kept Gardner off the air. He attributes her absence to lack of a sponsor for NBC's Update show. Update finally reappeared late in the fall with Gardner as anchor and Prudential as a sponsor. Ebersol adds that Gardner's role is now clearly defined: host of Update 45 weeks a year, feature reporter and significant contributor to NBC's Olympic coverage. "It just took a settling-out period," Ebersol says. Gardner concurs with a wry smile. "In my case," she says, "it just took longer than usual."
The last hangup in Gardner's contract negotiation was money; Kaminsky demanded a salary more in line with those of Gardner's male colleagues. He did not get it, although he did get Gardner a raise. Ebersol acknowledges that pay imbalance is an industry-wide issue. But he contends that women will not earn huge salaries until they can both host and do play-by-play, the most generously compensated assignments.
"They are paid equally, and yet they're not," Ebersol says. "The few million-dollar salaries are paid to those people whom Madison Avenue pays us to see. When an advertiser buys, he says, 'Is [Bob] Costas the host of the show?' We don't have advertisers asking us if a woman is the host. That is going to happen someday, but it hasn't happened as yet."
Gardner sometimes becomes grim discussing this because "it's not easy to keep walking into a place you know you're not really wanted." She has spent years shrugging off the small, wearying day-to-day instances of discrimination. When she finally achieved a national forum at ESPN and then NBC, she encountered a more subtle kind of oppression: the constant pressure of knowing that she couldn't afford a slip of the tongue, that critics and audiences were watching her far more closely and judging her more harshly than her male cohosts. "The black quarterback syndrome," she calls it.
"It was so hard to pry this door open, and if I mess up I know the people behind me are going to have it that much harder," she says. "Because then there's living proof. They can sit around and say, 'See? It doesn't work.' I don't want to be their living proof."
Gardner has toyed with the idea of leaving the air and returning to producing. However, her sense of responsibility has grown more acute in the last year, and she has resolved to continue on what she calls "this adventure." So she will go on being a constant source of debate until someone decides she is too old or is not attractive enough or has too much Brooklyn in her accent.