By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 7, 2015) — Linda Robertson is an established, versatile, creative sports columnist for The Miami Herald. During her tenure at the South Florida newspaper, the rise of Dan Marino to superstardom was one of the earliest generation-changing topics reported by the venerable paper.
Joining the Herald during legendary quarterback Marino’s rookie season (1983), Robertson witnessed history as it unfolded in the booming, sports-crazed market of Miami and the surrounding areas.
In time, the Miami Dolphins weren’t the only pro team in town and the University of Miami Hurricanes football team weren’t the squad chasing titles (see later moments of glory for the Florida – now Miami – Marlins, Miami Heat and Florida Panthers)
Her thoughtful coverage of the South Florida college and pro sports scene is a major part of her overall work portfolio. But Robertson has filed stories from the Winter and Summer Olympics, about top-notch tennis stars (Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, et al), among other topics such as sailing, running — you name it, she’s written about it. .
She’s also been on the right side of history in blasting the corrupt reign of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter. (To wit: a recent column had this headline: “Godfather of soccer Sepp Blatter keeps reign of shame as FIFA president”)
Robertson received the 2009 Mary Garber Pioneer Award, given by the Association for Women in Sports Media, in recognition of her distinguished career.
In 2014, she received an Associated Press Sports Editors top 10 award for explanatory reporting for 175,000-plus circulation newspapers.
I recently caught up with Robertson via email. Here’s the first of two planned Q&A segments that highlight her career and influences, thoughts on the news business and a wide range of individuals working in media and the sports world.
There’s something to be said for familiarity and longevity in a community and at a job. How has your time at the Miami Herald (since 1983) made it easier — if it has — to establish rapport with key sources from teams and colleges and other sports events in the South Florida sports community?
Rapport is enhanced by knowledge. By staying in Miami these many years – embedded like a sodden mangrove — I’ve developed a certain amount of institutional knowledge, if by no other means than osmosis. I know the reference points for the Dolphins, from the Perfect Season to the Dan Marino era to the current period of futility. I know the characters from the University of Miami’s glorious, swaggering five national championship seasons. I’ve been here for the birth of the Marlins, Heat and Panthers and their ups and downs. You can draw on those relationships in your reporting and those histories in your writing. Covering a local sports culture is kind of like living in a small town; you know your neighbors’ business – which can be claustrophobic, as well. Longevity bestows a keen sense of place. When I wrote about the inner-city rivalry of the Soul Bowl, for example, I interviewed parents of players who used to be players and cheerleaders themselves, and still live on the same street and burn with pride for what their school’s football team does for their neighborhood. When I wrote about Jimmy Johnson taking an early retirement in Islamorada, I had an understanding of the Keys lifestyle and why it was his ideal escape.
When I wrote about the Cuban baseball defectors pipeline, I already had layers of knowledge on the subject, having lived so long in the Cuban-American city and been to Cuba. I grew up in Miami from age 11 when the Dolphins were going undefeated (the Buonicontis lived nearby), and I’ll be doing an interview today and discover some kinship from my high school running days. Roots help you connect with your reading community. I returned here after college to start my career never, ever intending to stay. Sometimes I feel a twinge of regret for turning down opportunities to leave, but then remind myself that having a voice in one’s hometown is a rare and rich opportunity, too. Miami is a journalist’s dream. To be here to cover its wild and wacky evolution has been a lot of fun.
Do you think using a historical figure, stretching back to ancient times, can make a random point in a column that much more effective? Is that a technique you visit on numerous occasions? (Example from one recent Bosh column: “That will be tough without Bosh, the linchpin of the team and its thoughtful leader — its Socrates.”)
Allusions illuminate your subject from a different angle. When LeBron James failed to rise to the occasion during his first NBA Finals with the Heat, I compared his angst and lack of action to Hamlet. Not the most original reference, but at least it gave readers something to think about, because Hamlet is such a rich character and our current sports stars often come off as flat cartoon characters. I once wrote a column comparing the University of Miami’s agonizing wait for the sentence from the NCAA to “Waiting for Godot.” I like writers willing to take risks. You’ve got to be careful, though, because too many of us are guilty of the lazy, overused but handy historical reference. In sports writing we ought to put a moratorium on David and Goliath.
Did you always want to be a sportswriter? Or was there an event or person that made an impression on you that piqued your interest in this career? Describe what led to this career path.
I wanted to be a lot of things but sports writer was not one of them. I sort of fell into it because I always liked sports. Certain athletes made an impression on me: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Muhammad Ali, Alberto Juantorena and Mary Decker, among others. I played sports and I became a very good runner. I always enjoyed and excelled at writing and worked for my school newspapers. When I was a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, I wanted to write for the Daily Tar Heel but the only way I could wangle my way onto the staff was by volunteering to cover women’s sports. Nobody else wanted to cover women’s sports; they were mainly interested in the men’s basketball team, which would soon have a player by the name of Michael Jordan.
Because I had knowledge of sports and was on the cross country and track teams, the editors figured I could handle it. By the time I graduated, I was associate editor writing editorials. I hoped to be a feature writer, then a foreign correspondent, then maybe a novelist. But the Miami Herald called asking me to cover sports because they were desperate for another female sports writer. Christine Brennan was soon to depart for The Washington Post. So I said yes, figuring I’d come back to Miami and write sports for a maximum of two years before moving on to a journalism job with more substance.
How influential were your UNC professors on you to provide a nuts-and-bolts foundation for your journalism? Was there a mentor your time there as an undergrad who you would like to point out as having a special influence on your development as a writer and reporter?
UNC has a distinguished history of educating journalists. I was fortunate to have professors who taught students to be storytellers. Jim Shumaker (the inspiration for Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly’s strip “Shoe”) taught us to write with flair and impact, to say what you mean and mean what you say, and leave out the b.s. Raleigh Mann taught me how to be a meticulous reporter, observer and interviewer. Jane Brown taught me about the sociology of journalism, which has helped me see sports as integral to our culture. And my English teachers and professors were a huge influence.
As you reflect on Dean Smith’s life and legacy (note: the Hall of Fame basketball coach died in February), how important was his moral leadership and values in helping to advance racial unity and equality and progress at UNC, in the ACC, in North Carolina and in the South as a whole?
Dean Smith was a force for integration in the 1960s. He took a black student to an all-white restaurant where the team often ate. He made Charlie Scott the first scholarship athlete at UNC, just as his father had put a black player on his all-white high school team in Kansas. Smith exemplified class. He taught everyone who came in contact with him how to compete, work and treat people with class. I had no idea who Dean Smith was when I arrived at UNC but through the years covering college basketball – first as a student journalist at the 1982 championship then as a professional at the 1993 championship and his other Final Four appearances – I learned what a selfless, humble man he was. He spoke out against the death penalty, opposed nuclear proliferation and supported gay rights, but he did it quietly, lest he bring attention to himself. Matt Doherty said Smith would annually take the team to the Death Row prison in Raleigh to scrimmage and talk to inmates. When Smith died, it was so incredibly Dean-like that he left $200 to each of his 180 letter winners, to let them know he was always thinking of them and to “enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Smith.”
When you think back to your time working at the Daily Tar Heel what are the memories that immediately come to mind? What was the biggest thing you gained from that experience?
The Daily Tar Heel was crammed into a small, cluttered office space in the Student Union. This was in the Mesozoic Era, pre-computers, pre-Internet, pre-cell phones. We pounded on vintage manual typewriters and edited with pencils. We did headlines, layout, paste-up, everything. It was such a wonderfully intense, chaotic, hilarious hive of students dedicated to publishing a newspaper that was better than yesterday’s. I was sports editor my junior year, associate editor my senior year. The place had a Jack Kerouac-type of energy, like we were on this perpetual adrenaline-fueled adventure, at least in our minds. I loved my colleagues. S.L. Price and I ran the sports section. John Drescher, Melanie Sill and Jim Hummel were wiser-than-their-years editors. Frank Bruni, Ann Peters, Ken Mingis, Scott Sharpe, Al Steele – all distinguished themselves in a line that includes Thomas Wolfe and Charles Kuralt.
What we gained from the DTH experience was the conviction to embrace creativity rather than repress it like it was one of the seven deadly sins. We wrote some awful ledes but that’s how we improved. And we developed a work ethic we still draw on, learning it’s 90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration, and when you finish that feature article, go to the library and write your English term paper.
How would you describe your working relationship with top newsroom management and top sports department management at the Herald?
I’m fortunate to have a great working relationship with my superiors at the Herald. They respect my ideas. The Herald has always been a dynamic, empathetic newspaper and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the business. But it’s a shrinking business. We can only hope editors will keep playing to reporters’ strengths, because that’s what distinguishes good journalism from all the media noise out there today.
What are the biggest challenges for a female sportswriter in this male-dominated field of print journalism?
It used to be the impediments to equal access (the uninformed security guard who thought we were locker room voyeurs), then condescending attitudes. But today what’s most frustrating is the low number of women in positions of decision-making power. Salaries remain out of whack with male counterparts. And it’s amazing, in a comically pathetic way, how a certain percentage of irate readers still choose to insult women writers with outdated gender stereotypes such as “go back to the kitchen” or your basic nasty vulgarities. About sports! You’ve got to feel sorry for their daughters.
Follow Linda Robertson on Twitter:
Robertson’s Miami Herald archive: http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/linda-robertson/