She covered her first NFL game in 1976, when the language on media credentials included the sentence NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN IN THE PRESS BOX. Four years later, while working the Cotton Bowl between Nebraska and Houston for The Boston Globe, she was stared down by Cougars coach Bill Yeoman in the victorious post-game locker room. "I don't give a damn about no Equal Rights Amendment!" he screamed. "I ain't having a woman in my locker room!" Yeoman escorted her out.
"All the cameras shifted from the players to me," she says. "I went to the top of the Cotton Bowl by myself, sat down and cried."
When she started at CBS Sports in the late 1970s, network executives were perplexed about what she should wear on-air. "My first jackets were men's sports coats that they tailored for me and attached a CBS patch near the pocket," she says. "Ridiculous, right?"
Because she is, by all accounts, as nice as they come, she will not replay all the horror stories from the 1970s and '80s -- the graphic clubhouse gestures (when, in 1989, a New York Jets tight end named Mickey Shuler spotted her entering the locker room, he screamed, "Hey, no f------ women!" She simply waved him off and kept walking); the athletes who wouldn't give her a second's time; the fans who refused to take her seriously; the repeated whistles and smirks and tags: Honey. Baby. Love. Cutie.
The mounds of disrespect; of disregard; of disgust. "What kept me going through all the years?" she asks -- then pauses for a moment's reflection. "More than anything, the love of and respect for competition. That's what it comes down to for me. That's why I do this."
In the transient world of televised sports, personalities come and go like failed breakfast cereals. Where in the world is Irv Cross? Joe Montana? Steve Zabriskie? Eric Dickerson? Jerry Azar? Kit Hoover? Meghan McDermott? Emmitt Smith? So much of the medium is based on looks and gimmicks; on catch phrases and ratings, that stability is little more than a meaningless nine-letter word. Today's hot sideline reporter is tomorrow's old news. It is what it is -- a surface industry. A temporary stroll in the sun.
And then, there is Lesley Visser. The 55-year old. The survivor. She is the one who ignored the words on a credential and overcame Yeoman's Archie Bunker rant. She's the one who grudgingly donned the ugly blazers and dealt the taunts and slurs. Nine years ago, when ABC fired Visser as its Monday Night Football sideline reporter, replacing her with the younger, blonder, perkier, sexier Melissa Stark, most thought her career was over. It was a new age in sports television, one where -- when it came to women -- knowledge and experience ranked a distant second to looks.
Today, Visser is a reporter for CBS Sports, writes a regular column for CBSSports.com and hosts a morning show on WFTL in South Florida. Today, Stark is, eh, uh, somewhere.
"That I've lasted," says Visser, "is one of my greatest accomplishments. Maybe my greatest." Earlier this week, the American Sportscasters Association named Visser its No. 1 Female Sportscaster, outdistancing a field of 36 finalists that included such standouts as Andrea Kramer, Robin Roberts, Michele Tafoya and Hannah Storm. That the announcement received all the media attention of a John Oates CD release was both unfortunate and, in more than one sense, tragic.
Instead of focusing on Visser's achievement, the national media zeroed in on the sad, unsavory saga of Erin Andrews, the ESPN reporter who was videotaped naked in her hotel room. Whatever one thinks of Andrews as a professional, each moment devoted to her pitiful plight (and each Google search) takes away from the strides that women like Visser and Gayle Gardner and Christine Brennan made.
Back in the day, the righteous fight was for respectability. Women weren't objects. Or playthings. Or idiots. Every time a female reporter entered a clubhouse, or asked a thought-provoking question to a chauvinistic jock, or wrote a breathtaking lede, the slow-moving world of sports took another small step toward enlightenment. That was one of Visser's aspirations then -- not to be seen as some sort of trailblazer (which, without question, she is), but as a professional. As an equal. Now, however, thanks to this odd physical obsession over all things Erin Andrews, as well as to the ritualistic hiring of women reporters based first and foremost on looks, we are back in the dark ages. Paging Bill Yeoman. Mr. Bill Yeoman.
Once upon a time, female sports journalists weren't celebrities to be lusted after. They were simply people who wanted to tell the stories, then step to the side and listen. The goal wasn't to be seen, or to walk on the ESPY red carpet in a revealing outfit. There were no blogs, no look-at-me antics or low-cut dresses.
Lesley Visser's goal was to cover sports and go unnoticed. She did it better than anyone.
Nowadays, that seems impossible.