By Juliette Terzieff
Friday, February 2, 2007
U.S. sports fans who turn on the TV to watch the Super Bowl this weekend will see a familiar face on the sidelines. Lesley Visser carved out a role for women in sports journalism over 30 years and has made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Visser moved toward television in the mid-1980s landing a job at CBS in 1984, at that time the highest-profile TV gig for a woman in sports.
From there she jumped to ABC Sports for seven years before returning to CBS in 2000.
Along the way she covered an unparalleled range of high-profile competitions, including championships in basketball, football, tennis, figure skating and baseball as well as the Olympics.
While she looks back on the good things--"I got to work with legends!"--it wasn't always easy.
"I asked my questions and got out fast, appreciating that I was pioneering, but it was a class in humiliation to be out there wading through insults and indignities," she says.
Despite trailblazers like Visser, women in sports media still find themselves challenged in ways their male colleagues rarely are.
Both Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News and Rachel Bachman, sports enterprise writer for the Oregonian, say they have been called upon repeatedly--mainly by colleagues or readers, not athletes or coaches--to prove themselves.
"Most men have accepted the presence of women in the field or are better at hiding it, more politically correct than they were a decade ago, but still there is pressure to prove yourself, demonstrate your knowledge," says Moritz.
Bachman, who began her sports writing career over a decade ago covering the Oregon State football team beat, initially got some skeptical phone calls and e-mails from readers. To this day, she is often asked if she plays sports, which she interprets as an effort to measure her commitment to the industry.
"We aren't the oddities we once were, but the initial skepticism that women are just not as interested in sports as men or don't have the expertise still lingers," says Bachman. "At the same time, we are dealing with athletes now who grew up watching Visser and they are certainly more accepting than in past decades."
Female sports journalists remain a minority. A June 2006 report on more than 300 newspapers by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida found that women make up an average of 13 percent of newspaper sports departments--sports editors, assistant editors, columnists and reporters--even though 40 percent of high school and university athletes are women. Ninety percent of the papers surveyed have men as sports editors.
A 2002 study by the Washington-based Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., found that women were only 8 percent of television reporters and anchors.
"If pioneers like Visser hadn't done what they did, those of us working in sports journalism now wouldn't be here at all," says Mortiz, who is also New York state coordinator for the Association of Women in Sports Media, a national advocacy group based in Bayville, N.J.
"On many of her assignments Visser was the only woman around. She battled on alone, has seen it all, been through it all and, from a sanity standpoint, it's vital that a pioneer like Visser broke that ground," says Moritz.
For Visser, passion is what makes the difference.
"Longevity and success in this business come from caring about what you cover," she says. "I honestly don't know if it's easier or harder now. I think you still need knowledge, commitment, talent and passion."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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