When it comes to pay, prestige and, most important, acceptance, women sportscasters lag behind not only their male colleagues in sports but also their female counterparts in hard news. Ebersol says this is changing rapidly, and he predicts that each of the network sports divisions will have a major female star by the mid-'90s. "The long-awaited revolution and evolution of women in sports television is finally at hand," Ebersol says expansively. But his optimism is greeted by Gardner with an arched eyebrow.
"Picture a room," Gardner says. "It can be a bar, a fraternity, a living room. And there are 30 men in it, sitting around a television, watching football. The door opens, and they turn, and vow walk in. And you're staying. Here's what they think. A) Do we really want her here? B) Can we still do what we usually do? C) Why would she want to be here anyway?"
Legitimate questions. Here's what they might answer.
Because her husband got her the job.
Lesley Visser is a reformed cheerleader whose hair belongs in Madame Tussaud's and whose voice belongs in a champagne glass. That Visser is one of the most engaging people in the business tends to obscure the fact that she is also one of the most experienced and knowledgeable. She spent 14 years as a daily sportswriter for the Boston Globe before she accepted an offer from CBS in 1988. She has covered 10 Final Fours, 12 Wimble-dons, five Super Bowls, five NBA Finals, two World Series and an Olympics. "I wasn't at the dawn of women covering sports," she says. "But I made the breakfast."
Visser, 37, grew up following the Green Bay Packers, the Boston Celtics and UCLA. In the sixth grade, she idolized Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Auburn fullback Tucker Frederickson. She captained her high school field hockey and basketball teams. She memorized backfields, she listened to Ali fights on the radio. "When I decided I wanted to be a woman sports-writer, which was when I was 12, the job didn't exist," she says.
It still didn't exist in 1974, when Visser was hired by the Globe to cover high school football. Two years later, at age 21, she was assigned to the New England Patriots, becoming the first female beat writer for an NFL team. "I had a migraine the whole year," she says. Visser and Gardner met in 1977, when Gardner was a sports reporter-producer at Boston's WBZ-TV. Forbidden to enter the Patriots' locker room, the two women were relegated to the weight room, where they sat, bored, sweating deadlines or swapping players for interviews. They called it The Wait Room.
The 1980 Cotton Bowl was humiliating for Visser when then Houston coach Bill Yeoman announced, "I don't care about women's rights, I'm not having a woman in my locker room," and marched her out the door. In 1989, New York Jet tight end Mickey Shuler verbally accosted Visser as she entered the locker room at the Meadowlands. "Hey, no women in the locker room," he yelled. Visser, thinking he was joking, smiled and waved. Shuler shouted, "Hey! No——women in the locker room!" Shuler, who had thought he was just following team policy, wrote Visser a letter of apology She hung it on her wall.
Visser has an unfailing humor, usually self-deprecating, that comes from the conviction that despite discrimination, her career has not been the grimmest endeavor in the world. For one thing, it allowed her to meet her husband. Visser spent $250 per night of her own money to stay at L.A.'s Beverly Wilshire Hotel during the 1982 NBA Finals while CBS announcer Dick Stockton courted her. She and Stockton were married eight months later. "We talk a lot of sports, we read the papers from the back," Visser says. "He's the only man I know who can name every starter in every Final Four and also play Gershwin on the piano." The suggestion that Stockton got Visser her CBS job bothers her more than she lets on, but she jokes, "We're so flattered people think Dick has that kind of influence."
Visser is similarly flip about the attitudes of network executives like the one who told her she was "cosmetically correct" for television. Actually, Visser was something of an experiment for CBS, which hired her for her sports expertise and ignored her lack of on-air experience, something she is still trying to remedy.