Lesley Visser on sideline reporters: “It’s kind of become a metaphor for ‘female dumping ground’”
Pioneer was first woman assigned an NFL beat by a major daily; Visser later became network TV's first female sideline reporter and feature host
Part two of a series exploring sideline reporting, a role introduced in 1974
In February, 2020, it was announced that Lesley Visser would receive a lifetime achievement award from the Sports Emmys—the first woman to be honored as such
It wasn’t that easy. Yet, she did it.
Lesley Visser was a pioneer who paved the way for future female sportswriters and sportscasters. And for it, she is regularly asked today by budding women reporters for counseling and guidance.
It was the acceptance of Visser as a bona fide network reporter that enabled people like Tracy Wolfson, Erin Andrews, Allie LaForce and others to do what they do so well today.
It was December of 1975. The New England Patriots’ offensive line was banged up, and Pats’ Coach Chuck Fairbanks needed to protect his quarterback Steve Grogan.
Lesley Visser, who was in her first year covering the Patriots at the Boston Globe, asked Fairbanks who was starting at right tackle, Tom Neville or Bob McKay.
“Either one can play the position,” Fairbanks replied to the young reporter. So there Visser went, speeding her way back to the Globe thinking she had one of the biggest scoops ever.
The next morning’s headline read, “Coach Says ‘Neither One Can Play the Position.'” More like, one of the biggest oops ever. Visser’s phone rang at 6:15am. It was Fairbanks.
“Are you out of your mind? I said EITHER [not neither] one can play the position. Why would I say no one can defend our quarterback or open up a running lane against the Miami Dolphins?”
Lesson learned. But this was early in Visser’s career. Before she became the first prominent woman on network television sports.
Through a forty plus year, star-studded career, Visser would eventually be inducted into six halls of fame and was the first woman to receive the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Award for broadcast excellence. The Quincy, Massachusetts native is the only sportscaster, male or female, who has worked on crowning network broadcasts like the Super Bowl, Final Four, NBA Finals, World Series, Olympics, U.S. Open (Tennis) and World Figure Skating Championships. After one Super Bowl, she was also privileged to host the presentation of the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
Visser, in essence, has seen it all and has heard it all, too. While on camera at one point during her television career, Visser approached Lawrence Taylor, a nasty looking linebacker for the Giants and a notorious substance abuser who was twice suspended by the NFL. “LT, what’s the deal with you?” Visser asked. “You know what my problem is! My drug dealer lives five minutes away and he takes American Express,” Taylor replied to Visser.
Pretty remarkable stuff, right? More remarkable is Visser’s journey climbing through the turbulent, foggy, male-dominated sports journalism air. You thought Tracy Wolfson’s survival of a Super Bowl scrum was impressive? Read this.
The odds were stacked against her
Visser was always an avid Boston sports fan who came from intellectual stock, her father was a scientific engineer and her mother a teacher. Lesley knew as a kid that she wanted to be a sportswriter.
When Lesley was 11, her mom gave her unforgettable advice, “Sometimes you have to cross when it says, ‘Don’t walk.” Visser turned the pithy advice into the title of her autobiography, Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don’t Walk: A Memoir of Breaking Barriers..
At Boston College, Lesley wrote sports for the school newspaper, then dove into the field with blind ambition. Bad odds? You bet. In the 1970s, 95% of those in sports journalism were male. But in 1974, Visser won a Carnegie Foundation grant, given to only twenty women. It enabled her to launch a career in one of the industries dominated by men. So there she went, joining the sports staff of the Boston Globe. There, Visser became the first-ever female NFL beat reporter.
In many ways, Visser lucked out. But not entirely.
While at the Globe, Visser didn’t get the same privileges her male counterparts did. Women weren’t allowed in locker rooms at the time, so Visser waited in parking lots to do her interviews.
In 1982, Visser was the first woman in Coach Bear Bryant’s locker room. It was after the Iron Bowl, the big game against Auburn. It was also the Bear’s last season. After the game, he stood at the door of the locker room and told Visser, “There might be a naked boy in there, but I don’t give a s___t.” Bryant and Visser then went out and had Jack Daniel’s, “sweet tea,” as the coach called it.
Visser was also treated differently by the athletes. Oftentimes, Visser would find herself getting hit on by players, but she knew exactly how to play it off seamlessly. “Now, your mother didn’t teach you to talk like that,” Visser recalls saying.
Press boxes weren’t accommodating either. ‘No women or children allowed in the press box,’ her credential read. As the first female beat reporter to cover an NFL franchise, there were no women from whom to seek advice.
But Visser kept pushing forward. “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,” she says.
At the Globe, Visser was surrounded by a star-studded team, Peter Gammons on baseball, Bud Collins on tennis, Bob Ryan on basketball and Will McDonough on football. “I thought it was a privilege to go into the office every day,” said Visser. “Everyone was the best in history at his position.”
From print to network television
In 1984, Ted Shaker, an executive producer at CBS Sports, offered Visser a full-time on-air role.
Her Boston Globe colleague, Will McDonough (Sean’s late dad) warned her about TV, saying ‘Watch out. TV will take the wrong part of you.’ “He was right,” said Visser. “I had never cared about my hair!”
Just like when Visser was alone in parking lots interviewing players, she was alone when she arrived on the television scene. No female had been on the sidelines of an NFL game. “I never had a full-time producer on the field with me. I was expected to do all the work myself, like I had done at the Globe,” Visser said.
But Visser was extremely grateful. “I felt lucky, thrilled. There are only three people on a network broadcast, three out of hundreds of people covering sports every day in this country,” she added.
But stereotyping about women would become an issue. And on television, Visser was given assignments where she succeeded three outstanding male sportscasters, Jack Whitaker at the Kentucky Derby, Lynn Swann on Monday Night Football and Irv Cross on the NFL Today.
Lesley was given a richer set of assignments, one less linear or limited than sideline reporters today. She did studio work and conducted one-on-one lengthy interviews with newsmakers. Today, many women on the sidelines are just that, sideline reporters. Nothing more. Two questions and they’re done. That’s how they’re pegged, pigeonholed through their careers.
“It seems that somehow sideline reporters have become diminished since women have been offered the job,” Visser said. “It’s kind of become a metaphor for ‘female dumping ground.’”
According to Lesley, many viewers at home began to lose sight of merit and, instead, focused on the fact that women were on their television screens, all the while ignoring what really mattered, excellence.
“Men weren’t born recognizing a safety blitz or a box and one, they learned because they loved it,” said Visser. “It’s not genetic, it’s passion. I don’t recall any criticism of Craig Sager or Armen Keteyian or Chris Meyers, all excellent at their jobs,” Visser said.
Lesley Visser clawed through the stereotypes that women were not supposed to be sportswriters. She didn’t allow it to temper her resolve to excel. She carved a smoother, fettled path that women in sports journalism walk today.
And today, her door is always open to help others.
Sideline Reporting: Underappreciated or Unnecessary? The early history and those who fashioned the role
Great piece about a pioneer. It’s funny to think of someone still very much among us as a pioneer, but she truly is.