Linda Cohn: Sports biggest fan

Linda Cohn has spent the last 25 years behind the desk as a sports anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter. She has hosted more than 5,000 shows, more than anyone, male or female, and was inducted into the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame this year. Her love of sports has been a constant factor throughout her life.

Linda grew up on Long Island, and her dad was a huge sports fan. “The kind that would drop F-bombs while watching his teams,” jokes Linda. Growing up Linda had tremendously low self-esteem. She wore thick glasses and hated the way she looked. “Seeing him feel the roller coaster ride of being a sports fan – I yearned for that,” explains Linda. “I enjoyed the lows because I knew the highs would be so great. I wanted to feel. That is what sports gave me.”

Her mother wanted her to pick up a musical instrument. She suggested the violin, but Linda wanted to play the drums, like her idol Karen Carpenter did, before they found out she had an amazing voice. Playing the violin didn’t last long – as Linda puts it, “because I sucked at it.”

Another thing her mother wanted her to do was to play tennis. “Growing up on Long Island, tennis was huge,” says Linda. “I looked more like Billy Jean King, but I wanted to be Chris Evert.” Linda shares a fond memory of meeting the legendary Billie Jean King. “It was one of the top 10 thrills of my career, not only meeting her but finding out she was a fan of mine.”

She was good at tennis, even her instructor told her if she kept with it, she had potential, but another sport grabbed her attention – hockey. “I watched hockey with my dad. I loved the Rangers,” says Linda. Then she started playing street hockey with the boys in the neighborhood. Linda played goalie and got contacts to replace her thick glasses. She felt comfortable “hiding” behind the mask and other equipment, and liked the attention she would receive as the goalie. She was also really good at it.

“In 1976, my mom found a league on Long Island that would accept girls – but there was a catch,” explains Linda. “I was 14, but I had to play with 8-year-old boys.” She admits that experience and playing on her high school hockey team her senior year as the number two goalie, helped build her self-esteem. “I learned to deal with the whispers and the talk because I was playing hockey. I was the backup goalie in 8 of the 30 games. I got to participate in every practice. That was more important than anything,” she remembers.

After high school, Linda attended the State University of New York at Oswego, studying art and communication. She also played on the women’s hockey team for four years. After graduation, she realized that she could not be an NHL goalie and there was no women’s hockey league, so hockey as a career was out. She knew she wanted to be involved in sports in some way, so she had to make her own breaks.

Her first job was at a Long Island radio station doing the news. She approached the news director one day and offered to go to the Nassau Coliseum with her hand-held recorder and file reports on the New York Islanders hockey games if he would cover the cost of her gas. Through the reporting she did on that team in New York City, she began to meet other people in the business.

“I worked seven days a week, working at several different radio stations, on cable television, doing news if I had to, getting experience, honing my skills – anything I could do to talk sports,” says Linda. “I think that is what sets me apart, that I’m a fan first, and that’s what helped propel my career. I was unique in the way that I wasn’t just someone reading a teleprompter – I was really getting it.”

In July 1992, Linda began working at ESPN on SportsCenter. There had not been many women to come before her from which to learn the ropes. Robin Roberts worked at ESPN at the time Linda started and then she left to join Good Morning America.

“I am most proud that my job didn’t define me, my career didn’t define me, what always came first was my love of sports,” says Linda. “Getting an interview with the cameras tolling was not my dream – my dream is talking to the athletes without a camera rolling.” Through that focus, Linda built relationships with athletes and in turn, gained their trust. She also gained the trust of viewers sharing that the best compliment she receives comes from men saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I never listened to sports [delivered] by a woman before you.” She laughs saying that it is always prefaced by “Don’t take this the wrong way.”

The fact that she has helped pave the way for women in sports broadcasting means everything to her. “I’m very grateful that I could make a profession and open the doors to be on a show like SportsCenter, which was totally male-dominated,” Linda states. “I had to make these opportunities. No one was giving women anything on a platter. The business has changed for women so much, for the better.”

Linda will be in Phoenix on Nov. 1 as a guest speaker at the Jewish National Fund’s Annual Women for Israel Luncheon. “I’m looking forward to it. Anytime you can leave Connecticut in November is a win,” she jokes. “I know that the people I will be speaking to can all relate to my stories. They’ve all been there, and the challenges they have, now and in the past, and how to look forward at this stage in their lives, like I am, and just try to accept things.

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