Until you read more closely. Sports is about so much more than what lands in the win-loss column. Especially in recent years, it has been recognized as a major cultural, political and economic force. And any honest journalist, no matter what part of the newsroom they called home, would acknowledge that some of the best writing came from the sports department, where reporters seemed to be given a little more license, a little more voice. One name that proves that all: Red Smith.
When Smith (born Walter Wellesley) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, he was only the second sports reporter ever to do so. He is often credited with a version of the famous quote about writing: You simply sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. (That same quote has been attributed to everyone from Thomas Wolfe to Ernest Hemingway to Friedrich Nietzsche. Whoever said it first, they were all right.)
Smith’s name graces the top award given each year by the Associated Press Sports Editors competition, long considered the Pulitzer Prizes of sports. The Smith Award is given for “major contributions to sports journalism” — akin to a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Oscars.
This year’s award went to Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. Jenkins has more awards than can be cataloged here. Among them: Four times APSE’s top sports columnist; four times the Society of Professional Journalist’s columnist of the year; a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. She’s authored 12 books.
But the Red Smith Award has special meaning for her, according to an interview last week with APSE. Her father, Dan Jenkins, won the same award in 2013; she learned about her own honor on the 20th anniversary of his death.We offer our huzzahs to Jenkins, and I urge you to read her work. If you’re not familiar with it, consider these appetizers from Storyboard:
- A 2012 Why’s This So Good analysis of Jenkins’ profile of Kwame Brown, a high school basketball phenom who was unprepared for the pressures of the National Basketball Association or, for that matter, the basics of adult life.
- A March 2020 Q&A about a column calling out Olympic officials for dithering on a decision about the summer games in the face of the growing COVID pandemic.
We also re-recommend Jenkins’ 2019 column remembering her father.
Before you skip the sports stories, give them another read. Structure, character, tension, narrative arch — it’s all there to learn from.