BUFFALO, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–When the Indianapolis Colts square off against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on Sunday, sports fans will see Lesley Visser, a 34-veteran of National Football League coverage, on the sidelines reporting for CBS Sports.
Visser will be turning her attention outward on Feb. 4, but if you ask her to look inward at her own groundbreaking career in sports journalism, she sums it up in two words: "fantastic ride."
Onlookers might think a single word sufficient: "first."
Visser in 1976 was the first female print sports journalist assigned to cover the National Football League beat for a major U.S. newspaper. In 1997 she was the first to appear on TV’s "Monday Night Football" as a sideline reporter. In 2000 she was the first assigned to a Super Bowl sideline as an on-the-field reporter and the first female sportscaster to carry the Olympic torch in 2004, which she did in New York City.
Visser’s role in promoting women in sports journalism helped her forge a groundbreaking path into the staunchest of male athletic bastions, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Visser became the first woman inducted this past August when she received the prestigious Pete Rozelle Radio and Television Award, which recognizes "longtime exceptional contributions" in football coverage. She joins the ranks of sportscasters such as Van Miller, Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall and John Madden.
"It was staggering, humbling," Visser says. "You can’t buy your way in or be born into the Hall of Fame, you have to earn it."
Ambitions Started Early
Visser’s career ambitions began early.
"Being a sports writer was the only thing I ever wanted to do since I was 11 years old," the 52-year-old journalist says. "And while there were difficulties along the way my memories now are only happy ones."
As a girl in Quincy, Mass., Visser idolized legendary Boston Celtic’s player John "Hondo" Havlicek and the Boston Red Sox’s Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski. She read Sports Illustrated every chance she got.
"While other girls were dressing up as Mary Poppins for Halloween, I had to be dressed as Celtics guard Sam Jones," she remembers with a laugh.
Visser’s parents backed her up, supporting her career goals even though there were no female sports writers at the time.
"My mother must have been shaken but she told me, ‘Sometimes you have to cross even when the sign says don’t cross,’ and so I did."
Visser began her career in 1974. The 19-year-old college graduate got a job as a sports reporter at the Boston Globe covering high school football before being assigned to cover the New England Patriots two years later.
Access to players and team practices in the 1970s was extremely limited for female reporters and Visser often waited in the parking lot to interview players.
In one memorable incident, then-Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw spotted Visser, grabbed her notebook, and gave her an autograph before realizing she was a reporter; the story has become a well-worn anecdote over the years.
"There was no ladies’ room in the press box, no women allowed in locker rooms, no comfort zone whatsoever," Visser recalls.
At the 1980 Cotton Bowl game University of Houston coach Bill Yeomans marched her out of the locker room yelling about his disdain for female reporters: "I don’t give a damn about the Equal Rights Amendment. Get ouuuut!"
Moved to Television
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.
Skepticism Lingers for Women in Sports
"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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