“I was always the youngest and the first,” Lesley Visser says, summing up, in one short sentence, her pioneering career in sports media.
Visser’s list of history-making moments is longer than a Tom Brady touchdown pass. She was the first woman to cover an NFL team as a beat writer (she reported on the New England Patriots for The Boston Globe beginning in the 1970s) … the first woman to broadcast the NBA Finals, Final Four and World Series … the first woman assigned to “Monday Night Football” … the first woman to handle a Super Bowl trophy presentation … the first woman to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame … the first woman to win the Sports Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys. All those breakthroughs — and several others — came with their share of challenges, but Visser rarely blinked as she shattered glass ceiling after glass ceiling.
Her secret? She says it’s been two-fold: a genuine love of the sports she covers and a deep confidence in herself.
Here, Visser — whose four-and-a-half-decade career has included stints at the Globe, CBS, ABC and HBO, as well as a memoir, “Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don’t Walk” — talks about her love of sports, her passion for journalism, the progress women have made in sports media and what she learned from Nora Ephron.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to talk about your past, but let’s start with the present. Where are you focusing your energy these days?
It really is a crazy arc of a career that’s now been going for 45 years. You know, I was always the youngest and the first, and now there’s been this whole wonderful industry of women that I’ve seen progress in the past four decades.
I’m still at CBS. I’m 69. I’m pretty proud to still be at a network. And I do features. I’ve been able to do some great pieces. There was one recently on Misty Copeland, who as you know is the first Black principal ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre. You know how you learn all the time from interviews you do? She said, “I have as many shin splints as Lebron. I just have to smile and act like I don’t feel anything.”
I did a piece with Mark Cuban, who told me that he wanted to buy the Big 10 because he’s so disgusted with the NCAA. And last November, I was invited by the U.S. State Department to speak to women’s groups in Uzbekistan. It was really interesting. The number one challenge facing the women there is domestic abuse. When I was there last November, they had no laws on the books against domestic violence. They since have passed one pretty weak one — you get a fine. In this job you’re just constantly learning. One thing I’ve learned from athletes is, they put failure in the right place. They look at failure as a teacher, not necessarily the end of your life. They look at it like it’s a tool.
What first got you hooked on sports?
I think being born in Boston. My brother Chris first started taking me to Fenway Park when I was about 8 years old. Meanwhile, the Celtics did not lose the championship from the time I was 6 until I went to high school. So I grew up believing in team work. That’s what the Celtics were. From the time I was about 9, other girls would dress up as Mary Poppins or Cinderella on Halloween. And I would go as [Celtics Hall of Famer] Sam Jones. I’d write 24 on my little white T-shirt. I eventually got to know Sam quite well.
The Celtics had a lot of greats. What drew you to Sam?
I think when you’re young, guards are more accessible. My first husband was the great announcer Dick Stockton, and when Dick and I got married, both Bill Russell and Red Auerbach came to our wedding. Nobody cared that Dick and I were getting married. It was like, “oh my god, there’s Bill Russell by the shrimp bowl!”
What made you want to become a sportswriter?
I guess it’s the same way that other kids love poetry or music. I just loved sports. I authentically loved it. When I got a little older, I’d run to the mailbox every Thursday because that’s when Sports Illustrated came. My mom said to me one day, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” She was an English teacher for 35 years, so we always had books in the house. I said, “I want to be a sportswriter.” Which is when my mom famously did not say, “Oh, you can’t do that.” She said, “That’s great. Sometimes you have to cross when it says don’t walk.” [Pauses.] It makes me jammed up every time I say it. I went off to the Globe when I was 20 years old. The Carnegie Foundation gave 20 scholarships nationally to women who wanted to go into jobs that were 95% male. Which, of course, sportswriting was. They gave them in other disciplines, too — including archaeology, ophthalmology.
How intimidated were you in the early days?
I was pretty nervous, but I think my passion outweighed the hurdles. Actually, NFL locker rooms weren’t open to women for the first five or six years I covered the NFL, so I used to do the interviews in the parking lot after the game. I had to make a decision: Okay, if I talk to [Steelers quarterback] Terry Bradshaw, will [Patriots quarterback] Steve Grogan get on the bus, and then I’ll miss him? It was a lot of self-reliance. But I didn’t want to complain to the NFL because I didn’t want them to say, “Oh, see? A woman can’t do it.” And I didn’t want to complain to the Globe because I didn’t want the Globe to say the same thing. My dad was from Amsterdam. We were not Jewish, but he grew up under the Nazi occupation. They all were starving. It was helpful to me when times were rough, but it was pretty much nothing compared to growing up under the Nazis. I truly never complained. Can I thank my four men now?
Four men? I’m not sure what you mean.
Vince Doria was the legendary sports editor of The Boston Globe. He made me the first woman to cover the NFL as a beat and defended me multiple times. I was physically thrown out of the Cotton Bowl locker room. I had to fend off some players and coaches, but it was kind of the culture of the time, and I just rolled with it. I got to CBS, and there was another legend named Ted Shaker, who was the executive producer of CBS Sports. Ted made me the first — and still the only — woman ever to present the Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl, when the Redskins beat Buffalo in 1992. And he sent me to the fall of the Berlin Wall to see how sports would change in East Germany, which was one of the stories of the century. Then there was John Filippelli — he was the executive producer at ABC. I was the first woman on “Monday Night Football.” I did the World Series. I did the Triple Crown. And then I went back to CBS and I’ve worked for Sean McManus, the chairman and son of Jim McKay. And he’s signed off on it [so] I’m now part of the first all-women’s sports studio show on a network. It’s called “We Need to Talk.”
Obviously they all saw some unique quality in you, particularly in the early days.
I’ve heard them say that I had an authenticity about me. Vince Doria said one time that I have a charm offensive. I really did live by Nora Ephron’s line: that which doesn’t kill you makes you funnier.
You went from newspapers to TV in the 1980s. Was that a no-brainer?
At first I said no! Ted Shaker came up to Boston to talk to me. He said, “We had a woman who knew television — the great Phyllis George — but she didn’t know sports. So this time we want to find someone who knows sports — and we’ll teach you the TV.” And I said, “Why would I leave the Globe? I’m working with a sports department that’s the equivalent of the ’27 Yankees.” Ted was very confused. He said, “Lesley, there are only 20 of these jobs in America.” So I thought, okay, I can flex a whole new set of muscles. My first assignment was in 1984, covering the Lakers against the Celtics. I had covered basketball, but I had no television experience. None. And I looked like I had rigor mortis the first few times. I remember Ted Shaker would say to me, “Just be yourself.” But I didn’t know how to be myself on television.
What’s been your favorite event to cover?
The Final Four. I’ve covered 38 Final Fours, and when people ask me why I do what I do, I say Villanova 66/Georgetown 64. It was 1985 NCAA Finals. It was everything sports could be. It was belief. It was teamwork. Villanova barely got in the tournament. Georgetown was the defending champions. And it was just so much fun. I think nothing delivers on its promise like the Final Four.
How about Super Bowls?
I’ve been there for good moments and boring moments. I was on the field when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, in 2002. I remember Bob Kraft said, “Today, we are all Patriots,” because everybody was coming off 9/11. I lived in New York during 9/11, and the Jets and the Giants allowed me to go down to Ground Zero with them and hand out sandwiches. Plus, the Patriots let me be the first woman to cover the NFL. The Globe assigned it to me as a beat, but the Patriots had to sign off on it. So that Super Bowl was really a coming together of everything.
You’ve had some amazing memories.
You know, the reason I think I can talk in specifics is probably because, in the mid ’70s, the Globe sent me down to cover the Kentucky Derby. And the great Red Smith, the first sportswriter to win a Pulitzer, used to pick a young writer to walk the infield with. He picked me, which was just the honor of all honors. We were walking along and Red — Mr. Smith — said to me, “I’m going to give you one piece of advice, Lesley, for your whole career: no matter where you go, no matter what you do, make a memory.” And I’ve done that.
How do you feel about the current state of women in sports media?
It’s still not happening fast enough for me, but I have such gratitude, starting where I did. The credential that I wore to be the beat writer for the Globe covering the Patriots said, “No women or children in the press box.” They didn’t have a ladies’ room in the press box when I covered the Patriots because there were no women. I had to take the elevator down to the field level, sprint across the field, then come back up. So to go from there to where women can do anything now … radio, TV, print. And now we have thousands of them.
We’re also seeing a lot more interest in women’s sports in general.
I love it. You know where you can really see it? Now businesses are investing. Before it was just kind of … please cover us. And I have to say, if I’m being honest, when I came up as a sportswriter and sportscaster, everyone wanted to cover the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Final Four. Tennis — that was the only place where women were equal to men in terms of the fan base and what they could do. But now, the WNBA, women’s soccer and the fact that businesses are getting behind women — that’s really what we’ve been waiting for, where a company says, you know, I’m going to invest in that. That’s really where it’s turning. The field is open. It’s got a great horizon.
Speaking of horizons, what’s next for you? What still has you excited?
I sort of feel like Red Smith, who said, “I just want to do it better.” I really enjoy stories and competition. I always thought that sports is the great meritocracy because it doesn’t matter where your mother went to college or how much money your father has. Do you hit the jumper? Do you sink the putt? It’s on you. And I’ve been comfortable relying on that for myself. ,
Tom McGrath is a Philadelphia-based writer currently working on a book about the 1980s.
Featured image: Lesley Visser reporting from Houston on Super Bowl XXXVIII with her “NFL Today” team. (Photo by John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images)