Lesley Visser on her pioneering career, from John Madden to the fall of the Berlin Wall

It would take a couple of paragraphs to list all the firsts Lesley Visser has achieved in sports broadcasting.

Visser is the only sportscaster, male or female, to have worked on the network broadcast of the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Triple Crown, the Final Four men’s basketball tournament, the US Open and the World Figure Skating Championships. On May 24, at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York City, she will be recognized for her career with the Sports Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Visser appeared on my Sports Media Podcast this week for a nearly hour-long conversation about her career. Below are some highlights of our conversation.

Tell me about the ice fishing trip you went on with John Madden and his crew in Minnesota before the 1992 Super Bowl.

Just being with him was a great adventure. I always thought he was like a modern day Mark Twain. He was a great observer and a great communicator. We’d be on that bus and if he saw lights on a field, we’d stop for, say, a girls’ softball game. Or if someone said, if you go 40 miles in this direction, there will be a great Mexican restaurant. We went and stopped. You had the famous Chuy’s outside of El Paso, where they had a corner for him. …John was born in Austin, Minnesota, which is the home of SPAM. I found that perfect for the common man. John said we have to go ice fishing, but first we all have to go get our clothes. We went to a tackle and bait shop and got everything. He was [producers] Richie Zyontz and Lance Barrow and I think both Joe and Mike, John’s sons, were on the trip. We drove north to Mille Lacs, which is where the frozen lake was. The Madden Cruiser made it to the edge of the lake and then we all shuffled out. John wouldn’t let us have those warm cabins that Minnesotans even sat in, John said, no, those were for misunderstood people. We had to sit on these overturned buckets. Of course we didn’t catch anything. We had no idea what we were doing. A guy from a warm-up shack gave us fish he caught and we fried it in the Madden Cruiser. Lance knows how to cook. So we fried them on the way back to Minneapolis and we all said, best fish we’ve ever had.

You wrote for The Boston Globe for 12 years, right, before you worked in television?

Yes. When I started at CBS, the Globe still kept me. The Globe was the place. When I started in the press, television was the other guys. So I worked for both CBS and the Globe for about six years.

You wrote for The Globe when there were very few full-time women sports writers at the major newspapers. For those born after 1995, can you give them a sense of how challenging it was to be a woman in sports at that time in a high-profile venue like The Boston Globe?

Yes. I was always the only woman. The Boston Globe took a big risk. I went to the Globe thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. This is not the 1800. This was in 1973. I won it while I was in college at Boston College and they gave it to 20 women in America who wanted to work at 95 percent men. Now, these were all white collar jobs. Women were just beginning to attend law school and medical school. To give you some perspective, I couldn’t get my own credit card in my name until the mid-1970s. I always wanted to cover sports. So I went to The Globe on the Carnegie stipend. I was nervous as anything. It’s 1974, I’m an intern there, and it was the ’27 Yankees. It was Bob Ryan in basketball, Peter Gammons in baseball, Will McDonough in football, and Bud Collins in tennis. It was crazy, right?

The good news is that I was trained to a very high level at a young age and given great responsibilities. I must have kept the promise because I kept getting assignments. They made me the first woman to cover the NFL as a beat. The Patriots thought I was from Mars. I wasn’t a storm-barricading type of personality. Did I use humor as a default mechanism or thought, wow, it must be weird for them too. But of course there were no provisions for equality. I did all the interviews in the parking lots, whether it was raining or freezing cold. Today in a locker room, everyone puts a microphone in the same place. So everything was on me. Madden told me years later that I got caught on a “2-way trip” (which is a football route) because he had to decide whether to catch Terry Bradshaw, who is getting on the Steelers bus. or there goes Steve Grogan, the quarterback of the Patriots, towards his car, should I grab him? Actually, it was a very good training camp. I mean, I had an optimistic view of it instead of, why me? I didn’t want to complain to the NFL because they might say, oh look, a woman can’t do it. I didn’t want to complain to the Globe. But, I mean, there wasn’t even a ladies’ room in the press box.

I’ve talked to Claire Smith a couple of times about this. She was always indebted to athletes like Steve Garvey, who came out of her locker room to talk to her. It’s almost unbelievable that you were able to archive a copy.

Well, it was a real frontier then, with Claire among the greats. I mean, with all those first women, we used to say we’ll be done when we’re not just on each other’s Christmas card list, because there were about four of us. But yeah, it was real sailing. I remember one time with Dale Murphy, who everyone loves and is a great guy. Dale Murphy was strong in his faith and he didn’t believe that women should have the same access. Dale said that if she comes to the clubhouse, I won’t talk to anyone. That made me the bad boy. But God bless, since Claire had Steve Garvey, both Dave Anderson and Peter Gammons stayed out with me. The kindness of the not so strange. But yes, it was a lot of navigation then. I mean, like Claire, we all have scar tissue. But my dad grew up in Amsterdam under the Nazis. So he used to say to myself, okay, this is hard, but…

He obviously wasn’t afraid to be a trailblazer or trailblazer. Phyllis George was a great friend of mine. Phyllis and I were actually talking about the hate mail we were getting when I was at the Globe and she was at CBS. She said, “Look, do it this way. It’s so much faster to just read the good lyrics.” We would laugh at that. [Former CBS Sports executive producer] Ted Shaker told me, and I owe a lot of my opportunities to Ted Shaker, he said, “Lesley, we had a woman, a great woman, Phyllis, who knew television, but sports wasn’t her forte. So this time we want to hire a woman who knows sports and we’ll show you television.” I thought, okay, a whole new set of muscles to flex. I covered all the sports they did. I learned a lot of lessons when network TV was just a few channels and I made my mistakes in front of everyone.

I read that CBS sent you to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall. How does someone who is known for sports get to cover one of the most iconic news moments of the 20th century?

Dan Rather had started in the sport. Walter Cronkite played sports. Ronald Reagan played sports. If he can cover sports, which are live, that means he thinks about the deadline. I encourage this when I speak at colleges: Young people should read everything, not just the silo of their basketball team or the NFL. If you read everything, it gives you perspective. When I started at the Globe, nobody had specialized in communications. Everyone was history, politics, English, literature. My little bit of covering this was how sports would change. Katarina Witt had been the beautiful face of socialism. She really did live in a western world, but her apartment wasn’t far from the Wall. So Ted Shaker said, okay, how are things going to change in East Germany once reunification happens? It was amazing going through Checkpoint Charlie. Going through was like going from color to black and white. It was half a mile. Suddenly buildings were drab and people were huddled together, toilet paper like sandpaper. They walked just to walk through that Brandenburg Gate and smell and breathe freedom.

Do you miss being on the sidelines? Does he miss being in the arena to do what he did for so many years?

No. I feel like I’ve gone back to the future. Now I just do stories. I just did a great interview with Donna de Varona for the upcoming Title IX. She pounded those halls of Congress for years. I did one with Mark Cuban last year. Do you know that Mark Cuban wanted to buy the Big Ten? He has an original vision. So no, I feel like now it’s a throwback to the future like when he used to do those big takeouts at The Globe. I love doing a podcast. Madden told me: You’re going to love it for having conversations where you learn things. Scott Greenstein is the president of Sirius XM, great guy. He called and said, “Okay, it’s time for you to do a podcast.” I had been to quite a few of them. I said, Look, I’m not a hot person. That doesn’t interest me that much. I mean, I watch it. It’s not my style, but I think Stephen A. Smith and [Chris] Rabid dog [Russo] they are a scream I am in the business of learning as much as I think I can offer. I would love to have conversations with people. She said cool. She’s on Sirius XM and her name is In Conversation With Lesley Visser. I’ve really had a wide range of everyone from Billie Jean King to Ray Allen to Jason Clarke, who played Jerry West in Winning Time.

You traveled with Madden in a time before social media. He was a rock star of his time. If he comes back 25 years later, is it the same? The world we live in now, maybe there’s so much coverage of it that it gets a negative response.

Yes, what you say is interesting because we live in an excess of information. But I think great is great. Al Michaels would have been great 25 years ago and probably still will be 25 years from now. Bob Costas is still considered as great, and they are operating in the world today. Juan was so original…

You have probably heard this story. We would always stay at the Ritz in Chicago and he would sit in the lobby because he loved watching people, talking to people. So a British guy came up to him and said look, I live in England but I have tapes of your games and I just have to say I really enjoy you. John was like, wow, really, pretty cool. Later, he told his agent, Sandy Montag, “I had this interesting guy come up to me, but he looks a little weird in these big glasses.” And Sandy said, “That was Elton John.”

(Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)


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