Breaking Down Barriers

by Donna Petrozzello

New York Daily News Staff Writer

It will take more than a snide remark about female football reporters from CBS' Andy Rooney to dampen Melissa Starks' spirits.

Melissa Stark
Melissa Stark

The "Monday Night Football" sideline reporter will take center stage today during the Super Bowl XXXVII.

ABC's coverage of the NFL title game starts at 2 p.m. with a pregame show featuring Stark. Veteran commentators Al Michaels and John Madden will do play-by-play from the booth, beginning with the kickoff at about 6:20 p.m. Shania Twain perform at half-time.

Today's game marks the first time Stark has reported from the sidelines of a Super Bowl in her 10 years as a sports journalist.

"Football to me has always been the most exciting sports around," says Stark, who developed a love for the game as a child when she accompanied her father - a former ophthalmologist for the Baltimore Colts - on his locker room visits.

Stark wasn't insulted in October when Rooney commented on MSG Network's Boomer Esiason show that female reporters had no place on the field. Instead, she took the remark as a reminder that some people can't appreciate a woman's ability to tackle a job dominated by men.

"There will always be men out there who will be uncomfortable listening to sports reported by women," says Stark, who has reported on figure skating for ABC, Major League Baseball, the NBA and golf.

"As a woman in sports, you're constantly trying to prove yourself because you're put under the microscope more so than men," she says.

CBS Sports sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein counters critics with her topnotch sports IQ.

Bonnie Bernstein
Bonnie Bernstein

"I don't buy the theory that just because women haven't played football, they don't know football or can't report about it," Bernstein says. "All it takes is a genuine interest in the game - loving it, watching it, eating it and breathing it. You just have to let people know that you know what you're talking about."

Bernstein got her first warning about the obstacles she might face when she applied for an internship with NBC's "The George Michael Sports Machine."

"The producer there said he thought I'd be a good fit, but then he said, 'I just want to warn you, it's kind of a locker room in here,'" she remembers. "I said, 'I don't mind you shoveling it out as long as you don't mind getting it back.'"

Bernstein got the internship, and went on to become a correspondent for ESPN's "SportsCenter." In 1998, she joined CBS Sports, where she has covered the NFL, the NBA and college basketball.

Similarly, ESPN football reporter Suzy Kolber, a 10-year sportscaster, has earned respect by doing her homework.

The Philadelphia-bred sports fan, who played in a boys' football league as a teenager, anchors the cable channel's weekend NFL series, "The Edge: NFL Match-Up."

"I've always been accepted and respected by players and coaches, because they could always tell that I knew what I was talking about," says Kolber. "The players and coaches don't care if you're male or female. They just want you to ask good questions."