Boxing, barriers and making black history – the sportswriting significance of Emma Lindsey

Britain’s first black woman sportswriter for a national newspaper won awards, covered fights in Las Vegas, and met Muhammad Ali and Pele during her time in the industry. In Black History Month, she shares her experiences – both good and bad – in a Q&A interview…

By Jon Holmes

Emma Lindsey was a sportswriter for The Observer and The Independent on Sunday

After Alan Hubbard passed away in June, Lord Coe paid tribute to the former Observer sports editor, noting how he had been “a supporter and mentor to many female journalists” during his career.

Emma Lindsey was a notable beneficiary of Hubbard’s championing of talent. He recruited her onto his desk in the mid-1990s, sent her on assignments to world heavyweight title fights and other major events, and encouraged her to write confidently and with style.

However, Lindsey’s industry journey is not as well known as it should be. An award-winning features writer who also specialised in athletics and who has contributed chapters to academic texts about sports journalism, she moved into other areas of the media and then digital publishing. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University.

To the best of her knowledge and that of her former colleagues, she is Britain’s first black woman sportswriter.

“I’m not wanting to give myself a plaque or anything,” she insists, but as someone who can speak to the value of mentorship in a highly competitive industry, her own significance should be celebrated, not least in Black History Month.

After an exchange of correspondence in the summer, the SJA invited Lindsey to join us for a website Q&A. We’re grateful to her for taking the time to chat.

Hi Emma, it’s been great to connect and have this opportunity to inform a wider audience about your sports journalism career and the place you hold in industry history. How did these conversations come about?

Alan Hubbard

It was following Alan’s celebration of life, which was both a lovely and a sad occasion, and just what he would have wanted. I caught up with former colleagues and while we reminisced about press boxes and going to tournaments, I realised I couldn’t remember having seen any other black women journalists when I was covering those stories.

I spoke to Kevin [Mitchell, former Observer tennis and boxing correspondent] and Ron Shillingford [writer and journalist], and they couldn’t think of a black woman sportswriter before me either. I didn’t want to say it if it wasn’t true but then the answer came back from the SJA that I almost certainly am the first.

Really, I was just curious because it wasn’t something that was discussed at the time. When you’re out there in the field, it’s not like you look to see who else is around – you’re just getting on with digging the furrow.

Let’s go back to the start of your sports media career. How did you get into that part of the industry?

I was working for the Weekly Journal, which was The Voice newspaper’s experiment with broadsheet publishing. That’s where I cut my teeth, after training at the London College of Printing.

I then did work experience at numerous places and the Weekly Journal’s editor Isabel Appio kept me on to write features. I was fortunate that she let me have free rein, and that many of the subjects I was investigating happened to chime with the zeitgeist. That’s something that’s accompanied my career.

Prior to working at the Journal, I’d accompanied my then boyfriend, who was a boxing writer for the Evening Echo, to cover the Watson-Eubank II fight in September 1991. I’d been compelled by the experience, as a bystander, until it became incredibly tragic.

Through that, I was asked to contribute to an episode of a BBC programme called ‘Women Talking’. They wanted us to ask Chris Eubank about his fight with Michael Watson and the caveat was that nobody needed to know anything about sport – we just needed to get to the man under the mask to find out what had happened to him emotionally, because people were saying he’d never fought the same again after that fight.

I asked him a lot of penetrating questions, and wrote the piece up for the Journal. Somebody on the staff there had been doing sports shifts at The Observer and asked if he could send it over to Alan, as he thought he might like it. And Alan did like it. He asked me for a picture byline and then commissioned me to do another interview, and then more after that.

In the interim, I’d accepted the offer of a contract at the Mirror and while I was there, I found out that I’d won the Sports Writers’ Association’s Best Newcomer of the Year Award in 1995. I didn’t even know that Alan had put my pieces in for that!

For the Mirror, it had been mostly news-peg features – one day, it could be ‘find five people who have quit smoking’, the next, ‘go and talk to Trevor McDonald’. Then in this other lane, I’d won this award for sportswriting so I was thrilled to get the offer of a contract from The Observer to write colour pieces on the sports desk.

Emma with her Best Newcomer Award from the British Sports Journalism Awards in 1995

I learned very much on the job and was fortunate to be among an incredible group of writers who were kind and generous and helped me to find my feet. Closing ranks would have been completely understandable but there was none of that.

My beat was to be that new person who turns up at whatever fixture it was, and who observes and writes about the sporting event from an outsider’s perspective. Sue Mott was writing for The Telegraph and Julie Welch for The Guardian at that time but it was still unusual for a woman to be writing for a sports section. As the pieces that I wrote gained traction, other papers started getting women into similar positions.

So it built momentum, but it was all down to Alan’s vision – seeing that there was a place for writing like mine.

What about your other bylines?

After Alan left The Observer, there was a sea change. A new sports editor joined and it became very much straight sport. I moved on to the Express, to write features and celebrity interviews for their Sunday magazine.

I hated that. I realised that compared to sports heroines and heroes, soap stars didn’t cut it at all. The truly great thing about competitive sports is the competitors themselves, and they’ve almost always got really interesting backstories. There’s always a compelling reason that drives them to extraordinary lengths to be the best at whatever it is they’re pursuing – I used to winkle out those stories and they were absolutely fascinating.

The same wasn’t true so much of TV soap stars so I moved on from The Express and then did some freelance work for the Independent on Sunday, under Neil Morton.

As part of that, I got into women’s boxing and interviewed Laila Ali and George Foreman’s daughter Freeda, sadly now deceased. I then started working on a book about women’s boxing, writing about the likes of Jane Couch.

But at that time, boxing pundits were still saying ‘it’ll never happen, it will never take off, it’ll never be a thing’ – so I changed tack once again.

Laila Ali with her father, Muhammad Ali, after defeating Suzy Taylor in Las Vegas in August 2002. (Image: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

What was the appeal of boxing?

It was my first love in sports, if you like. I remember being four years old and a small flashing black-and-white screen at our home in Shepherd’s Bush – we were watching Muhammad Ali. That’s one of my earliest TV memories.

Both my parents were huge sports fans. My mother has passed away sadly but my dad will still watch anything with a score. Mum and Dad would always take opposite teams so I grew up around that. I wasn’t particularly good at sport at school myself although I could run fast and I was OK at hockey.

I love athletics and now, women’s football. But there was always this interest in boxing and in its stars.

Where else did you go for colour pieces?

There was no event too small or too large – I was sent to Henley, Wimbledon, Donington Park, ice hockey matches, netball championships, and Las Vegas to watch the memorable Lewis-McCall fight that ended in a nervous breakdown for McCall.

Off the back of that and for other work, I was shortlisted for the British Press Awards Feature Writer of the Year in 1997. Michael Parkinson won it that year so I was in pretty good company!

Among those I was privileged to meet was Venus Williams the first time she played in the UK, and Serena, who was still a kid in braces sitting in the locker room. I remember Venus’s dad said, “you think this one’s great? You wait til this one starts playing…” It’s great thinking back to those moments.

Venus Williams in action at Wimbledon in June 1997 (Image: Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images)

You’ve written chapters in academic texts about representation in the media, and in the 1990s and 2000s, you were writing articles about race as well. Are you exploring these themes in your studies now?

As far as the Masters dissertation is concerned, the question was asked of me, ‘what happened? You were there in sports media, and then you disappeared.’

What happened was that back then, I had a white ally, to use the terminology of today. We have this whole new lexicon now that has sprung out of Black Lives Matter and you can use that prism to look back at things.

I had that allyship from Alan. I can’t sing his praises highly enough – he was a real visionary in all sorts of ways. And after I left The Observer, I found it very difficult to get back into position on a sports desk.

Sometimes I think, ‘did all of that happen?’ It’s almost like it was in an alternate universe. But I’ve got the awards and the bylines to prove it. Actually, what I was butting up against was racism, I think. What I offered was a very different flavour and it wasn’t palatable at that time.

Since then, there have been positive changes for the industry – it would be wrong to say that there haven’t been – but it’s taking a very long time. And still, when you look at who’s in the C-suite – those people who give other people jobs, the people who handle budgets – I think the facts and faces speak for themselves.

Were there also issues of sexism and misogyny that you encountered? Did that play out in a different way to the racism, or was it all connected?

The discrimination was very subtle. When people talk about ‘polite racism’, it plays out in the sense that people of a certain generation tend to gravitate towards people who look like them, who have similar experiences, including in education.

I remember being asked by one Observer senior executive, ‘where did I school?’ I didn’t actually know what he meant. I thought, does he mean where did I go to school? I told him I went to a comprehensive in Ealing.

I recall the tone of the conversation changed after that. It became a little chilly, I presume because he then realised that I hadn’t been to the ‘right sort of school’.

Actually, I think these days, discrimination has more to do with class than with race. Class is the big common denominator.

It plays out in the subtleties and nuances in conversations, which, if you haven’t been schooled in the ‘right way’, i.e. attended certain institutions, you won’t pick up on. It’s as if you don’t know the code.  

If you look at the sub-text – and there is always a sub-text – it’s very easy to see how things are loaded in favour of one particular group over another.

Did you sense it was harder to break through in sports media specifically as a black woman, compared to your work in other areas of media? Did you find sports media to be a closed shop?

Yes, definitely. I remember being asked by somebody else as I was leaving a meeting, in an incredulous tone, ‘how did you get here anyway?! How did this happen?’

As women we often have a tendency to downplay our achievements – but it wasn’t a fluke. How I got to the Observer, was through winning an award for articles I’d written for the newspaper. I’ve always been able to turn my hand to anything, so I used to write about sport the way I write about anything else, with a keen eye. Luckily, my path crossed with Alan’s and he liked my style.

I remember some advice Alan gave me before I went out to Las Vegas. I was panicking, thinking, ‘can I really do this?’ Hugh McIlvanney and all these heavyweights of boxing journalism were going out there and here was little old me. Alan said, ‘just write what you see’.

So that’s what I did – but sometimes that’s not enough.

A lot of times, it’s about who you know and that’s just the way it is, probably across any profession. But I think sports journalism still is a boys’ club to some degree. A few women are let in, but generally, that remains the state of play.

It’s a reminder that we must continue to break down barriers in the industry for different demographics and groups. The SJA has made a fresh attempt to help with this recently, making changes to its British Sports Journalism Awards categories and introducing an assisted-entry scheme. In terms of black representation, would you have hoped we’d be further along now than we are?

Yes. Take football – look who’s on the pitch as compared with who’s in the boardrooms. The facts do speak for themselves. Gary Younge, a colleague at the time, said to me, ‘Britain is backward when it comes to race’ and I think I’d have to agree with that.

I was glad to see the success of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’.  As a journalist, I got tired of explaining race to people.

It was one of the reasons I went into digital production and publishing; to gain experience of developing editorial strategy, commissioning and editing – to be on the other side of the fence.

As a black person, you grow up knowing that you have to understand the mainstream culture. But British culture is now, more than ever, a composite culture, and it should be a requirement to have a fundamental understanding of what that means.

In fact, to have a monochrome, monocultural, heterosexual view of life is so out-dated now, as to be irrelevant and people who think that way, do Britain as a country no service. It makes us seem utterly archaic when the parameters of conversation are so narrow.

The stories that you were able to tell in sport, such as the athletics pieces you wrote – how conscious were you at the time that your perspective was unique compared to others covering them?

Only in so much as looking around at my peers and seeing who else was in the press room.

I was often asked to write from a black perspective. Quite often, I didn’t necessarily want to – this idea of ‘bashing it home’ – but I was asked to do that.

Another colleague once said to me, ‘why do you keep being asked to write these pieces? You could write about anything’. I replied, ‘well, that’s what I’m being paid to do’.

But yes, I did used to feel constrained by that. I wondered why it was my role to bang the gong constantly.

We must talk about your career highlights in sports media as well, such as the stories that you most enjoyed pursuing and the memorable people you encountered. What would you pick out?

I’m exceedingly lucky to feel I’ve had a few highlights, but my top three have to be: meeting Muhammad Ali in 2001, when he came to see his daughter, Laila Ali, fight at Universal Studios; then in 1997, reporting ringside in Las Vegas, on the McCall v Lewis II fight, in the company of heavyweight boxing writers including the late, great Hugh McIlvanney, and Colin Hart et al; and in that same year, being shortlisted for the British Press Awards’ Feature Writer of the Year.

I also got to meet Pele at a press conference for the Reggae Boyz, Jamaica’s 1998 World Cup qualifying team, and he autographed my T-shirt!

Oliver McCall (right) glares at Lennox Lewis during their heavyweight bout in Las Vegas in February 1997 (Image: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Black History Month is a chance to celebrate people from the community and their achievements. The position you hold in UK sports media industry history certainly warrants that. Are you exploring some of what we’ve talked about in your creative writing as well, or is that an entirely new direction?

I’ve got the idea for a novel, set in the world of women’s boxing. I’ve just finished a Masters in Creative writing and for my dissertation, I wrote a collection of non-fiction pieces to construct a narrative identity, or build a story, based on my experiences.

Ultimately, everything that we go through in life, we bring to bear in our creativity whether consciously or not – it’s part of the palette of colours that we use to paint pictures about our lives and the things that we’ve been through.

Sport is definitely one of my colours; certain metaphors have become part of my vocabulary. I remember one day in the Observer newsroom, looking up from writing a feature and remarking to sub-editor Jon Henderson, ‘wow, isn’t it amazing – everyone in here is just looking for the right word’. I felt so fortunate to be among them.

Here I was, being paid to go out and interview people who have achieved amazing things, breaking world records and having the privilege to ask them questions about their lives, and then write their stories. It was a special time.

And it’s lovely when you get positive feedback from people to say, ‘thanks for writing that piece’ or ‘I really enjoyed that interview’. I remember being told, ‘nobody’s ever asked me these sorts of questions before, I actually really enjoyed that interview’. It was a dream job.

I really enjoyed reading the Observer features you wrote away from sport that are online – such as on your grandmother’s funeral in Mississippi, and the 40-year anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bomb in Birmingham, Alabama. These must be high on your list of favourite pieces you’ve been able to get published?

Yes, the piece titled ‘Mississippi yearning’ from 2002 has germinated a lot of other things. It birthed the idea for a novel series, which I’m bringing across the line now – I’m on a deadline to send to my editor. I’m hoping they will be picked up either by the end of this year or the beginning of next.

I realised that there was so much that I wanted to write about and that non-fiction wasn’t necessarily the best route. When you’re writing about your family, you have to tread carefully and it’s often better to fictionalise events. The novels grew out of that.

I think there’s another chapter to come for me as a journalist, though. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, and I don’t think I’m done with it yet.

Part of the SJA’s purpose is to help young people looking to get into the industry who are often looking for industry role models. What’s come through a lot in our conversation has been the need for mentorship – and Alan was clearly a great mentor to you.

Yes, I think it’s really important to both see people who look like you in positions that you’re seeking to attain, and to have people who can ‘see’ you.

Alan saw who I was, and he liked the way I wrote and how I looked at things and applied myself. He told me that I was ‘a pro’. Coming from him, it was the highest compliment and whenever I’ve been up against a tough assignment or deadline, I remind myself of what he said and it spurs me on.

Ultimately you have to believe in yourself, that you can achieve what you set out to, and you have to be tenacious – especially in this business. Don’t give up! The best things in life aren’t easy, so spot your opportunity, grab it, and dig in.

Our thanks to Emma for the Q&A.

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