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Lesley Visser to receive lifetime achievement award from Sports Emmys

Lesley Visser attends the The Paley Honors: Celebrating

Lesley Visser attends the The Paley Honors: Celebrating Women In Television event at Cipriani Wall Street at on May 17, 2017. Credit: Getty Images/Michael Loccisano

Lesley Visser is from Massachusetts, so she knows hockey. But she never had known hockey that sounded quite like this.

It was March 8, and NBCSN celebrated International Women’s Day with an all-female crew, both in front of and behind the camera, including game analyst A.J. Mleczko, who also works Islanders games for MSG Networks.

“It thought it was brilliant,” Visser said. “I texted them that I think I can die happy. I just heard women flawlessly covering a fight in the NHL [between Drake Caggiula and Vince Dunn].

“They weren’t hyper. It was like, ‘Well, there’s a haymaker.’ In my lifetime that that would happen . . . “

Her voice trailed off, but she needn’t say anymore. Visser, 66, has been in the sports media business since 1974, first as a newspaper reporter for The Boston Globe and later on television at CBS and ESPN/ABC.

That makes her a pioneer among women in sports journalism, and one already much-honored, including by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, with its Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award.

Next up: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sports Emmys, scheduled to be presented on April 28. She is the first woman so honored.

“I was so overwhelmed - truly, truly overwhelmed,” she said. “I’m really, really humbled.”

Adding to the feeling was that the news came from CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, with whose father, Jim McKay, Visser used to work Triple Crown horse races.

“They sent me the list [of past winners] and honestly, I either worked with half the winners or idolized them,” she said. “I mean, I grew up listening to Curt Gowdy on cheap transistors call Red Sox games.”

Assuming the ceremony occurs in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, Visser plans to invite a who’s who of friends from the early days of women in sports journalism.

“It’s going to be powerful to have the people I’ve been on this journey with the whole time,” she said. “I feel like I’m representing all of them.”

Visser said that the day before speaking to Newsday she had an hourlong conversation with Yankees radio announcer Suzyn Waldman, who blazed her own sports media trails starting in the 1980s. “We talk all the time,” Visser said.

NBC’s all-female hockey telecast was only one sign of increasing acceptance by fans of women in sports media, even though there is a long way for gender equality in the business – and for civil treatment on social media.

“I’m grateful for that, having been one of the people who got off the boat and helped clear the land,” Visser said. “It was so bizarre in the beginning.”

She recalled that as a Patriots beat writer in the 1970s, she often was treated best by African-American players such as Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton and Tony McGee.

“Black players would tell me they knew what it was like to be the only one, and it was really powerful,” she said.

Visser still is under contract to CBS, for which she does occasional features and interviews, such as a recent one on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. She was scheduled to work at the Final Four before it was cancelled.

“It’s perfect,” she said of her workload. “I do X-amount of features. I wrote a book [in 2017] that got optioned for a movie and also a documentary, but those things never happen . . . And I seem to do everybody else’s podcasts. I must have done a hundred athletes’ podcasts. Sooner or later it’s going to be my own.”

Visser’s first husband was longtime play-by-play man Dick Stockton. In 2011, she married Bob Kanuth, a former Harvard basketball captain.

Hall of Fame basketball coach Rick Pitino introduced the couple. Visser covered Pitino’s Boston University teams when both were in their 20s.

The fact that Visser transitioned to TV in the mid-1980s after a decade in print gave her added initial credibility. It also makes her an expert not only on the evolution of women in sports media but of sports media in general.

“The changes I’ve seen in my 45 years, people think I’m talking about the 1800s,” she said. “When I started you’d come back from Patriots practice and on your typewriter with the carbon paper you would type up your story and put it on the spike. People talk about it like it was a 1940s movie.”

The lack of access in an era when press credentials made it clear no women or children were allowed in locker rooms added to the degree of difficulty.

“I had to stand in the parking lot for the first seven years when I covered the NFL,” she said. “I had to do it all myself. It used to confuse me when people always would say, ‘Oh, you started in print,’ as if that were a lesser role.

“I said, ‘No, having come from 10 years of what was voted the No. 1 section in the history of sportswriting was enormously gratifying for me.’”

She said other than equal access, two of the best changes since she started are the addition of women’s restrooms in press boxes and the elimination of smoking in press boxes.

The Emmy honor is a chance for her to single out other women who have been on the ride with her.

“I didn’t do this alone,” she said. “Maybe in the beginning, yes, but we’ve needed each other. All through my 45 years I’ve stayed close to the women [in the business].”

She recalled Christine Brennan, another influential female sportswriter, saying, “We’ll know we have made it when we’re not on every other woman’s Christmas card list.”

That list is not as long as it should be, but it is longer than ever. “It’s been really a treasure,” Visser said, “and I’m so grateful for where it’s going for everybody.”

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