SI Vault
Sally Jenkins
June 17, 1991
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June 17, 1991

Who Let Them In?


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Visser made a couple of vows when she took the job. First, that she would write all of her own material. Second, she told Shaker, "If you see me going down the rabbit hole, you have to tell me. Because I don't want to be one of those trivia questions who lasts a year."

Visser's first season on the air was a painfully public learning experience. "I handled the microphone like the Ted Baxter of sports," she says. She couldn't get used to hearing the voices of directors and producers in her ear, and she would break off her reports in midsentence. "I was raised with good manners—you stop speaking when someone else is talking," she says. One of her first assignments was a taped interview with Chris Evert, whom she had known for 10 years, at the 1988 U.S. Open. Visser stood by and, at the proper moment, rigidly shoved the microphone at an amused Evert.

"Lesley, is this your first time doing this?" Evert asked.

Visser's stiffness is her lingering weakness on air. Shaker tells her to be more herself. She was clearly more at ease this year in her college football and basketball reports. "Ted gave me time," she says. Shaker may have found a more natural niche for Visser in the conversational format of The NFL Today, on which she has developed a rapport with colleagues Terry Bradshaw and Greg Gumbel. "I don't know if everybody is ready to hear a woman telling them so-and-so is going to run off left tackle," Visser says. "But you know what? They're going to hear it."

Because she's difficult.

Gardner, 40, got her first job as a sportscaster because she hired herself. She got her second job as a sportscaster because a guy died. "It was not because everybody was sitting around saying, 'We've got to get this woman on air,' " she says.

She did not come by her love of sports in any explicable way. "Reincarnation?" she suggests, shrugging. She grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of a liquor salesman and a housewife, and she led a double life: She cut out paper dolls while watching Y.A. Tittle quarterback the New York Giants. "It was this closet thing, this other interest I didn't tell anyone about," Gardner says.

She has held just about every job in the business, both in front of and behind the camera, having started as a talk show and documentary producer in Boston and then having worked in New York City, Detroit and Baltimore, where she got the daily sports anchor job on WJZ-TV in 1983 when her predecessor, Randy Blair, died of a heart attack. ESPN called in 1983, NBC in 1988.

"Look, I didn't come to this with any particular cachet," Gardner says. "I was just a person who grew up in the United States. And when I looked around at the people who were sportscasters, I thought they were just people who grew up in the United States too. So I thought, Why can't a woman do it? I just assumed everyone else would think it was a swell idea."

Gardner is labeled the dean of women sportscasters by some people in the business and temperamental by others, none of whom are willing to be quoted. Virtually everyone had an opinion of her, especially in the past year, when her NBC career appeared to be over. She disappeared from the air for much of last summer and fall amid bitter contract negotiations between her agent, Arthur Kaminsky, and Ebersol. Gardner worked without a long-term contract from January 1990 until last month, when she finally signed a new multiyear deal. No one doubted that she was eminently qualified to be a sportscaster. According to both Gardner and Ebersol, the problem lay in deciding exactly what type. Gardner is adamant that her strength and experience lie in anchoring. "I felt I had worked so hard and so long and fought in the public arena to do this," she says. "And I didn't want to lose the credibility I had built doing it." Ebersol viewed her as an "unsurpassed" feature reporter and showed little interest in her as an anchor.

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