Getting to know … Linda Robertson (part I)

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.

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Follow Linda Robertson on Twitter: @lrobertsonmiami

Robertson’s Miami Herald archive: http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/linda-robertson/

Karen Crouse’s recipe for success: A passion for sports and writing (and knowledge) shines through in every article

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 25, 2015) — Her latest story appears on Page 1 of the International New York Times, bundled together with The Japan Times as a two-newspaper package available throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. In this piece, also displayed prominently on The Times’ website, she writes with clarity and depth about the state of men’s golf in 2015.

One brief passage, which appeared on the story’s jump page, immediately grabbed my attention because of its clever word play and broad viewpoint: “He has a twinkle in his eye, a strut to his step, a howitzer for a driver and 2.3 million Twitter followers.”

She was writing about Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland.

She is … Karen Crouse, a 1984 graduate of the University of Southern California and former Lady Trojans swimmer.

She has paid her dues in this business, reporting for newspapers located on the West Coast and East Coast. Her career has included stops at the the Savannah (Georgia) News-Press, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Palm Beach Post and The New York Times.

I recently conducted this interview with her.

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Who are three or four must-read sports journalists you read on a weekly basis? What makes their work appealing to you?

Anything by J.R. Moehringer, and if you read his piece on Alex Rodriguez in ESPN The Magazine, the reason why will be self-evident. His collaboration with Andre Agassi on Agassi’s autobiography is the gold standard of sports memoirs. I greatly enjoy our Sports of the Times columnists, especially Michael Powell, whose dexterity with the English language is laudable. His column from Madison Bumgarner’s dad’s home during the decisive game of the World Series was an instant classic. Sally Jenkins consistently writes thought-provoking columns, and her writing is so lyrical it could be set to music. I’ll read anything by Chris Ballard or S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated because of the depth of their reporting and the loveliness of their prose and I always look for Johnette Howard at ESPN.com.  I read a LOT of non-sports non-fiction. I just finished “Leaving Before the Rains Come” by Alexandra Fuller, whose writing is beautiful.

Do you have an all-time favorite favorite print journalist?

Jim Murray, because he could wound without drawing blood – he wasn’t vicious in his criticism – and his columns were unfailingly original, entertaining and artfully crafted. And a more humble person you will NEVER find.

Considering the ebb and flow of an NFL game (one of your past coverage beats) and a “typical” day of pro golf, how does your note taking, reporting, writing, interviewing … the whole enchilada differ?

In football, I filled my notebook with facts and numbers. In golf, my notes contain much more description of scenes, of player and crowd reactions, of dialogue. I have much more freedom in golf to find different stories because of the sheer number of players posting scores every week, and because they are in action from dawn to dusk, I have a lot more time to sniff out stories and report them than when I was limited to 15 minutes of watching practice, a half hour of locker room access or one game a week.

Is pro football and golf reporting equally intense, but different?

The misconception about golf is that it is a deadline dream job because it ends before dark. The reality, for me, anyway, is that I’m typically at the course from dawn to dusk most days, which is much longer than I spent at football stadiums on game days.  I love the freedom the sport affords me in plucking stories from all over the course. But one of my friends, after observing me at work one week, said it’s like I’m trying to write like (John) Cheever while keeping a wire service reporter’s hours. I’m not sure about the Cheever part, but the days are very long and four years into the beat, I haven’t really figured out how to strike a better balance.

What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?

My curiosity, my ability to ask good questions (which is a consequence of pretty exhaustive research, if I’m working on a profile), my genuine interest in what makes the people I’m writing about tick, my doggedness (a leftover quality from my competitive swimming days, I suppose), my desire every day to tell the readers something about my subject that they haven’t read before.

There are challenges, biases, and obstacles that female sports journalists have faced and continue to face that their male counterparts never do. But is there additional respect given to you when you identify yourself as a New York Times journalist? Does that open doors or provide greater access/opportunities that you wouldn’t have normally received in past newspaper jobs that you have had?

I definitely get calls back from people who almost certainly would have ignored me if I had contacted them when I was with any of my nine previous employers. I never take for granted the doors that open to me, if only a crack, because of where I work. And I never kid myself about why many people choose to talk to me – while I’d like to think it’s because of my sparkling personality or reputation (ha!), in many cases it is entirely because of I have the Times’ stamp of approval.

I’m not sure I’m automatically accorded more respect because of where I work. If anything, my work and how I carry myself is more closely scrutinized by people inside and outside the business. I’m keenly aware there are many people who would love to have my job, and who think they would be better at my job, and so in some respects I feel like I have to work harder than ever to prove to outsiders that I’m worthy of occupying such a prized position. I remember not long after I was hired by the paper, I was covering a football game and a fellow sportswriter, a man, congratulated me on the job and said, “I didn’t know they were looking for a woman to fill that position.

”Bless him, but it never occurred to him that the editors might have thought I was the best hire for the job. He assumed that if I was hired, it was because I was a woman and the paper was looking to diversify its sports section.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in this profession?

Treat the people you cover the way you’d like to be treated. Remember they are people first, athletes second. Don’t assume anything.

Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned, and perhaps this is unique to me, is all these years I’ve been digging into people’s lives and asking all kinds of questions, it is ostensibly because I’m trying to make sense of their lives, but what I’m really trying to do in a very elemental way is make sense of my own and our collective lives.

A  mentor’s words of wisdom?

Don’t try to fit in because it’s your differences that set you apart.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Steer clear of the comments under your stories

A past lesson you learned that served you well for future work?

At the 2012 Masters, I was misquoted in a national sports blog – in the headline, no less — and suffered greatly for it. It was an invaluable experience, being on the other end of an interview and seeing firsthand how your words can be a boomerang that knocks you off your feet. It gave me a greater appreciation of how vulnerable people become when they entrust you with their stories and their beliefs. The experience strengthened the empathy I already felt for the people I cover.

These days, because of their prolonged time away from the game, how much of a void is there without Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa winning frequently and traveling the world over for the LPGA? Which LPGA golfer now in the game do you feel has the greatest potential for legendary status?

Lydia Ko is 17 years old and already No. 1 in the world. Never mind Rory McIlroy, Lydia may end up being the next Tiger Woods. She has said she plans to play until she is 30 and then embark on another career.  She has a bubbly personality, a beautiful swing and is as gracious as Lorena, which is saying a lot.

Who has a better sense of humor in a one-on-one setting with a reporter for an interview — Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps?

I’ve been told Tiger has a wicked sense of humor, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen shades of it over the years. But since I’ve never had a one-on-one with Tiger, unless you count walking and talking to him as he strides purposefully to the practice range or his car, I’ll have to say Michael.

Has there been a years-long Phelps boom in increasing popularity in swimming that’s clearly noticeable in terms of participation numbers

There has been a noticeable Michael effect. There was a definite spike in club swimming participation after the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I didn’t appreciate how much he transcended swimming until he showed up at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina Country Club outside Chicago to play in the pro-am and drew a larger gallery than any golfer, Tiger included. Michael made swimming look fun and effortless. Of course, the rub is that anybody who gets into it on a year-round level quickly discovers the sport can be very time intensive and demanding, and the sensory deprivation can be so great — staring at a black line for hours on end is not everybody’s cup of tea, and so while Michael may have brought a lot of people to the pool, he alone cannot make them love the grind. That has to come from within and not everybody is wired that way. For that reason, I’m not sure the sport will ever take off, though when you see teens  like Katie Ledecky and Michael Andrew, there’s reason to hope.
in the U.S.

Are there female U.S. Olympian swimmers who also ought to be recognized for helping achieve this?

Natalie Coughlin has been huge, Missy Franklin, by her actions and her attitude, has won over a generation of impressionable youngsters while endearing herself to the casual fan.  Katie Ledecky, through her humility and her dominance, is raising the profile of the sport stateside.

And now … a bit of word association and descriptions that immediately come to mind from your experiences observing them and interacting with them over the years…

-Paola Boivin – one of my best friends in or out of the business, writes with humor and compassion

-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings

-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend

-Donald Sterling – personifies a very small subset of Los Angeles

-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated

-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer

-John Daly — complicated

-Arnold Palmer — beloved

-Jacques Rogge – the Beijing Olympics on his watch taints his legacy

-Gary Hall Jr. —  showman

-Don Shula  — old-school

-Joe Namath – misunderstood

-Teemu Selanne – a prince of a player and a person

-Jackie MacMullan — fierce

-Linda Robertson – wonderful writer, one of the best in the biz

-Jim Murray – singular talent; my favorite writer of all-time

-Bruce Jenkins – terrific wordsmith, I’ll read ANYTHING he writes on baseball

-Natalie Coughlin – admirable longevity and I’d eat meals she concocts!

-Federica Pellegrini – broke freestyle barriers with the help of the buoyant suits

-Pat Summitt – the all-time greatest college basketball coach of either gender

How many Olympics have you reported from?

Nine (every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2006)

Which assignment(s) brought you the greatest thrills/adrenaline rush to watch and report on them?

The Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1993 – I hadn’t covered much hockey and was thrown into this incredible postseason run, starring Gretzky and including series in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are the cradle of the NHL.  And Michael Phelps collecting his eight golds  in the 2008 Olympics. I started swimming competitively after watching Mark Spitz win seven golds in 1972 so to be able to cover the man who supplanted Spitz in the record books for The New York Times felt like my sporting life had come full circle.

And which off-the-beaten path Olympic stories are among your favorite stories you think you’ll be recounting to family, friend and colleagues in 20-30 years from now?

At the very first Olympics I covered, in 1992, two of the U.S. Olympic team members were swimmers I had grown up training with in Northern California. So it was kind of surreal to be covering their races as a journalist. And Mike Bruner’s victory in the 200 butterfly at the 1976 Olympics is a result that will always be near and dear to my heart. He let me interview him for an eighth-grade project before the Olympic Trials. I brought a copy of the interview to the Trials, which I attended with my father, and he later credited the interview with putting him in the right frame of mind to make the Olympic team.

What do you think is the biggest misconception the general public and/or sports fans have about a sports reporter’s job?

That it is glamorous and easy. That we come at our jobs as fans when, in truth, most of us bring to the workplace the detachment of anthropologists observing unfamiliar tribes in their natural habitats.

What are three must-read sports nonfiction books and three non-sports books you would recommend to anyone to read?

“Open” by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer; “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox; Jim Murray, “The Last of the Best, Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand

And a sampling of my favorite non-sports books; “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs; “Gold” by Chris Cleave; “Glass Castle”s by Jeannette Walls. “The Skies Belong to Us” by Brendan Koerner. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “The Good Spy” by Kai Bird. “Fire in the Lake” by Frances Fitzgerald.

Is Dan Jenkins’ sense of humor (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2014-12/dan-jenkins-fake-interview-with-tiger) something that Tiger will refuse to relate to? Or was Tiger’s reaction to what Jenkins wrote a by-product  of his drop in win totals and simply a public way to blow off steam?

My sense is that Tiger Woods’ inner circle was more upset by what Dan wrote than was Tiger, who I really, truly (believe) does not seem to care what anybody writes or says about him.

You’ve written, I believe, several thousand articles now during your colorful career in this business. Can you think of three or four stories that resonated the most with readers (and your professional colleagues)?

These are some stories that resonated with readers and that I’m also proud of because of the positive impact they had on their subjects:

In 2005, during the first month of my first Jets season, I wrote a profile on the receiver Laveranues Coles in which he talked about for the first time publicly being sexually abused as a child. After unburdening himself of this secret, his personality blossomed. I had a Jets front-office official come up to me a few years later and tell me that that story helped Laveranues come out of his shell and set him on the path to becoming one of the most beloved (instead of misunderstood) players in the organization.

While with the Palm Beach Post, I did a project in 2004 on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team and how the members were among the first competitors to face a playing field tilted against them because of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. The anchor of the piece was Shirley Babashoff, who might have equaled Mark Spitz’s Munich gold medal outlay in Montreal if not for the fact she was going up against East German competitors pumped full of steroids. Shirley was famously reclusive, but I persuaded her to talk and the result was a really powerful piece that I hope gave people who don’t see understand why athletes using PEDs is such a big deal a different perspective.

In 2010, I did a series of pieces for the Times on the challenges faced by women whose prime years as child bearers coincide with their prime years as athletes. I did a piece on the golfer Cristie Kerr, who was considering surrogacy; on the tennis player Gigi Hernandez and the golfer Jane Geddes, who adopted two children after Gigi battled infertility; on the driver Sarah Fisher, who retired from racing so she could try to start a family, on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a WNBA player then with the (New York) Liberty who experienced motherhood right out of high school, scuttling her college plans, and then again after she was established as a professional.

Also in 2010, I wrote a profile of the swimmer Amanda Beard in which she talked for the first time about her struggles with drug abuse, bulimia and cutting. The story led to her writing her autobiography for Simon and Schuster.

In 2008, I wrote a really fun profile of Kurt Warner and I included 8 Family Rules for being a Warner. It also was developed into a book, which Kurt and (his wife) Brenda did with the help of a ghost writer.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for the New York Times sports section about how I became a sports journalist and told the story of interviewing Mike Bruner when I was a youngster, and how impactful it was when he credited the interview with his making the Olympic team. That story really resonated with readers and colleagues alike, I think because it’s such a pay-it-forward type of story, a really feel-good tale for these tough times in journalism.

During your times covering the NHL, was Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux the more magnetic superstar in your view?

Definitely Wayne, because even though he is a shy man, when he had the puck on his stick your eye was inexorably drawn to him.

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Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren

Here’s a link to her New York Times archive: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/karen_crouse/index.html