Her colleagues at ABC News could hardly believe it when Lisa Salters decided to leave for ESPN. The way they figured it, she had everything backward. ABC was the kind of place you wanted to end up if you were a serious reporter; ESPN, with its emphasis on the frivolous business of sports, was the kind of place you used as a steppingstone.
When you're at a network, there's kind of an elitist attitude, Salters said. They think, 'We're it, this is network TV, the top of the heap,' And I did think about how it was going to look if I left the network. It was like somebody going to Harvard and saying, 'I'm not really happy at Harvard - I want to go to Penn State.' I was worried about what people were going to think.
Salters doesn't worry so much about that anymore. Discussing her career last week from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., she sounded quite content with the choices she has made, choices that have taken her from the Far East, where she covered the 2002 World Cup, to the Athens Olympics to the edge of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A 1988 Penn State graduate and former Lady Lion basketball player, Salters has become one of ESPN's top reporters since joining the network five years ago. She has lent it some hard-news credibility as it strives to move beyond the scores-and-stats mentality of past years.
Much of Salters' work has appeared on Outside the Lines, a news program that uses the Nightline template - taped segments from correspondents followed by live panel discussions - to examine major issues in greater depth. The program's success exemplifies ESPN's determination to do serious journalism. As a general assignment reporter, Salters has reported on the sports memorabilia business, the precarious state of the NHL and the hiring of the Southeastern Conference's first African-American head coach, among other stories.
As [ESPN] grows, it doesn't want to be known just as the worldwide leader in sports, she said. It wants to be the worldwide leader in sports news. It wants to be at the forefront of every breaking story, and breaking news has nothing to do with highlights. It's about journalism.
Salters also has made two trips to the Middle East with ESPN. On the first trip, undertaken during the buildup to war in 2003, she found herself fielding questions from other reporters about what a sports network was doing in Qatar of all places. But there was no shortage of stories. During her six weeks on land and at sea, she found a former Olympic rower overseeing Tomahawk missile launchings and a sailor who had been invited to an NFL tryout.
Last year, after helping cover the Summer Olympics in Athens, Salters returned to the Middle East as ESPN did SportsCenter from Kuwait. Kenny Mayne, Steve Levy and Stuart Scott anchored the shows, while Salters reported from the field. Meeting the troops was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
They were so happy to see us, she said. It was like we were taking a slice of home and bringing it to them. They couldn't have been more grateful. They were putting their lives on the line, and they were happy to have us there. It really put a lot of things in perspective.
Salters majored in broadcast journalism at Penn State, but her education began in earnest when she began suiting up for the Lady Lions.
A 5-foot-2 guard from King of Prussia, Pa. - she remains the shortest player in school history - Salters wasn't recruited by Rene Portland. She originally had no intention of playing college basketball but started to miss the sport after attending games in Rec Hall. On the advice of Lady Lion players Lisa Faloon and Vanessa Paynter, who she met playing pickup games, Salters showed up for an open tryout and came away with a spot on the roster. Though she went on to play sparingly for the Lady Lions, the experience left a lasting impression.
People ask me if I get nervous before going on the air, Salters said. I tell them there's nothing that frightens me more than having to run. As long as no one is saying, 'Ladies, line up,' I'm happy. To me, that was hard work. Basketball was hard work. What I do now, watching people work out and not having to do it with them, is perfect.
Salters began her broadcasting career in Baltimore. She spent seven years as a reporter at WBAL, where she covered national and international news in places like Somalia and Rawanda.
She moved on to a Los Angeles-based ABC affiliate service in 1995 and joined the network two years later. Working as a general assignment reporter, Salters covered the Oklahoma City bombing trial, the crash of TWA Flight 800 over the Atlantic, the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. She could likely have remained at the network and enjoyed a distinguished career. But ESPN beckoned, and after some initial doubts, she decided it was the right move.
Five years later, the move looks even better. Salters is enjoying her work at ESPN, which next will take her to the Women's Final Four. She wonders whether she'll run into her former team in Indianapolis. The Lady Lions are seeded fourth in the Chattanooga Bracket, and while they aren't favored to make it past the likes of LSU, Duke and Texas, longtime tournament antagonists Tennessee and Connecticut are lurking in other brackets for a change, meaning anything is possible.
No matter who ends up in the Final Four, Salters is looking forward to the event, and to whatever comes after. The skepticism that greeted her decision to work for ESPN has long since faded.
My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner, she said. I love what I do. I can't wait to go out and do it every day.