Journalists

Lesley Visser: A pioneer who broke ground with gentle footsteps and without threats or accusations

When CBS Sports' journalist started in the 70s she ran into signs that read, "No Women or Children in the Press Box"

Visser: When I asked then Patriots’ coach Chuck Fairbanks about one of his linebackers he said, “Why don’t you go to lunch with my daughter, you’re about the same age.”

 

For decades, Lesley Visser’s written and spoken words have enriched America’s tapestry of scribes and broadcasters; whether  in her early years with the Boston Globe or for decades on network television.

At a different time, as a pioneering woman in a man’s world, Lesley broke through unwritten firewalls without the use of threats or accusations. Visser’s sensitive pen and dulcet tone were mightier than an arsenal of swords. She blazed trails amiably and with genuine smiles.

I first met Lesley in the early 1980s in the bowels of what was then Alumni Hall, now Carnesecca Arena on the St. John’s campus.

In a cramped press room, Lesley was hitting away at her typewriter keys; filing a game story for the Globe against a tight deadline. Other writers in the same small room were fighting the same clock and looked emotionally taxed. Lesley’s forehead wasn’t at all puckered by stress. Deadlines came easy to her. Despite the exigencies, Lesley wore a contagious smile.

I was reminded of it just last week when I sent Lesley a list of questions for the Q&A below. I asked her to answer the queries when she could get to them. I attached the document with the questions to an email, hit the send button and went out to walk the dog. By the time I got back and had something light to eat, I revisited my laptop and voila! There were Lesley’s multiple answers; each one filled with color and heft.

Witnessing the striking speed in which she responded, I concluded that Visser must have been her editor’s favorite; never missing deadlines.

Visser has always been comfortable in her sportswriting skin. It wasn’t like she intruded on the fraternity of the men she joined. Lesley fit and the feeling was mutual. Like many others in the profession, she was fun loving and a bit irreverent. It made for good company.

Fast forward decades later, Visser is still going strong. She’s covered just about everything imaginable in sports. The New England native has been with CBS since 1983, other than for seven years when she was with ABC/ESPN. It’s 35 years on network television and counting!

Lesley recently penned an autobiography, the title of which is a not so subtle tribute to her mom. At age ten, Lesley told her mother that when she grew up she wanted to pursue a sportswriting career. Her mother encouraged her immediately, using an expression that became the title of the book, Sometimes you have to cross when It says don’t walk: A memoir of breaking barriers.

How does the saying go? “You can recognize pioneers by the arrows in their backs.” Lesley proved the adage untrue. You won’t find arrows in Lesley’s back. She opened doors with soft footsteps. And many of the women who’ve followed, sportswriters and sportscasters alike, continue to ride Lesley’s inspiring wave of success.

We had a had chance to cover lots of ground:

When did you know that you wanted to pursue a sports media career?

I wanted to be a sportswriter from the time I was ten. We lived in Cincinnati after an early childhood in Boston listening to Curt Gowdy call Red Sox games under the covers with a cheap transistor squished against my ear. We’d moved to Ohio and I started reading the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. My mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, ‘I want to be a sportswriter’ which, of course, didn’t exist for women back in 1963. but my mother, instead of saying, “Forget that, girls can’t do that,” she said, “Great! Sometimes you have to cross when it says ‘Don’t Walk.’” It was profound and it gave me permission to pursue my dream.

Why did you migrate to broadcast when CBS pursued you?

I loved being at the Boston Globe (voted by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports section of all time in the years I was there – but not because of me!), It was murderers’ row, everyone was the best in history at his position – Peter Gammons on baseball, Bud Collins on tennis, Bob Ryan on basketball, Will McDouough on football. I thought it was a privilege to go into the office every day. In fact, when Neal Pilson and Ted Shaker of CBS came to Boston to offer me a job, I asked, ‘Why would I leave the Globe?’ But they convinced me to flex a new set of muscles, so I did, and believe me, I was terrible in the beginning. I looked like I had rigor mortis!

When you started, there weren’t many women in the sports media business. What was it like? What was access like?

I think when you are young, you are protected by your innocence and I was so grateful for the opportunity that I ignored how hard it was and there weren’t any ladies rooms!  (The credentials when I started said, “No Women or Children in the Press Box.”) This wasn’t the 1870’s, but the 1970’s. The Globe made me the first woman to cover the NFL as a beat and I was insanely nervous. The first thing Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks ever said to me, after I asked a question about one of his linebackers was, “Why don’t you go to lunch with my daughter, you’re about the same age.”!

I stood in parking lots for seven years after games (There were no provisions for equal access until the early/mid-80’s.) and I was glad to have the job. I didn’t want the Patriots to say a woman couldn’t do it and I didn’t want the Globe to say I couldn’t do it.  John Madden used to say I was caught, “in a two-way go”.

If I said you were one of the women sports media pioneers, who would be a few of the others you would identify?

I loved the women who were near or right after me; Sally Jenkins, Jackie Macmullan, Christine Brennan, Jill Lieber, Johnette Howard, the two Michelles, Kaufman and Himmelberg. We’re all friends to this day and not to be forgotten, Suzanne Smith (the only woman to handle a network truck every Sunday, directing NFL telecasts), Robin Roberts, Andrea Kremer, Linda Cohn, producers Emilie Deutsch, Deb Gelman and Alanna Campbell; so many greats, I’m sure I’m forgetting others- executives like Donna Orender, Lydia Stephens and Amy Trask – all contributed mightily. Since I was always the first, I was never hired by a woman, but I depend on them now!

Who were some of the writers and broadcasters who took you under their wings and helped mentor you?

What a wonderful ride it’s been – I would go to Wimbledon and say, ‘Hi I’m Lesley Visser, I work with Bud Collins’ – and I’d hear, ‘Oh, wow, what do you need?’  I’d go to the World Series, ‘Hi, I work with Peter Gammons’ – “Come right in” – the NBA finals, ‘I’m Lesley Visser from the Globe, I work with Bob Ryan’  – the super bowl ‘…Will McDonough’ – all were fantastic to me.

But the others are still great friends to this day (Will called Billy Sullivan, then owner of the patriots and said, “We’re having a woman on the beat and that’s that!” How lucky was I?)  In TV, my boss Ted Shaker sent me to the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me the first and only woman to present the Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl and at ABC, John Filippelli made me the first woman on Monday Night Football and Curt Gowdy, Jr. put me on the Triple Crown and World Figure Skating with Peggy Fleming and Dick Button. Was I dreaming?

From a woman’s perspective, is political correctness suppressing society?

I think it’s a mixed bag. From the distance I’ve traveled (no ladies rooms) to women covering every sport at every level, I’m thrilled. Personally, I have a fair amount of scar tissue because I never went to human resources or sued anyone, I tried to work it out, thinking that this was new to most of the coaches and athletes, too – it’s a Boston defensive mechanism to use humor, and I think it worked for me.  I’d say to players, when they hit on me, ‘Now, your mother didn’t teach you to talk like that.’ We could have a laugh and move on.

Who were the most interesting sports personalities you covered in each sport and why; baseball, basketball, football and tennis?

In tennis, two people –  Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe – I had the privilege of getting to know Billie Jean (I actually won her only “Billie Jean King Journalism Award”) – and she gave me the greatest advice after my mother. When I asked her what the pressure of always being in the Wimbledon final was (she won 20 Wimbledon titles) she said, “Are you crazy? Pressure is a privilege.”  Arthur Ashe was just pure class, and went to South Africa before anyone cared, to try and end apartheid. My favorite baseball player was either Black  Jack Morris or Tino Martinez, both fascinating people and, in the case of Tito, someone who’s become a good friend. My idol growing up was not Ted Williams or Jimmy Piersall, but journeyman pitcher Ike Delock. The night before my first marriage, my girlfriends flew in Ike for my bachelorette party!  In football, my favorite was Brett Favre; he was fun, a maverick, a champion. In basketball, from the time I was ten years old (and to this day) on Halloween, I’ve dressed up as Celtic guard Sam Jones. (He now calls me before every Halloween and begs me not to wear his jersey, but I tell him, too bad!)

You’ve covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, Kentucky Derbies, Olympics and countless other major sporting events. If there’s an event you haven’t covered and wish you did, which would it be?

My greatest regret in sports (from someone who covered 35 Super Bowls, 35 Final Fours, ten Olympics, NBA finals, World Series, the Triple Crown and everything from the World Cup to box lacrosse) was that I never covered the Tour de France. I would have loved seeing those athletes ride up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe – and personally, my greatest regret is that I ran 5 miles a day and didn’t have the guts to train up to the Boston Marathon. I made it too iconic in my head and didn’t think I could do it. 

Rick Pitino introduced you to your husband, Bob  Kanuth. How long do you and Rick go back?

I’ve known Rick Pitino since I was 21 and he was 22. I was his beat writer for the Boston Globe when he was at Boston University.  I’ve been to his 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th birthday party and I’m not objective about him. I’ve covered all seven of his Final Fours and  both his championships. I think he’s one of the most brilliant basketball coaches of all time. I also have thoughts on the jackpots he’s been in – but we probably need much more time for that.

At the Kentucky Derby ten years ago, I went to say hello to Rick in his box. Of course, it was on the finish line and Rick said to me, “Lesley, I want you to meet my friend Bob Kanuth, he was the captain of the Harvard basketball team in 1969.” Well, I said to myself, I don’t know about that since I’ve been around college basketball for 35 years. I stuck my hand out and said, ‘I’m sure if you were the captain of Harvard basketball, I would have heard of you,’ to which Bob, in all his elegant 6-foot 4 inches of Crimson class quietly said to me, “You must have missed four years.” Oops…and now we’ve been married for ten years.

Did you ever make a mistake on-air and say to yourself oh wow, they’ll fire me?

I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s astonishing I’ve lasted this long – which one do you want to hear? There was my first year covering the Patriots and I asked Pats’ coach Fairbanks who would start at left tackle in the upcoming game against the Dolphins and he named two guys, saying, “Neither one can play the position.”

I drove back to the Globe at 100 miles an hour and the headline the next morning said, “Patriots coach says no one can protect Steve Grogan.” My phone rang at 6 in the morning, “Are you Out of Your Mind?!” Fairbanks screamed, I said, EITHER one can play the position.!!”  and so it goes….

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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