Leon Carter was driving Thursday when APSE President Gary Potosky called to inform him that he’d won the Red Smith Award for 2022.
“I pulled the car off the road for a few minutes,” Carter said. “I needed a moment to let it sink in. This is amazing. So many greats have been honored. When I resumed the drive, I thought back to the days I grew up on a farm in Virginia and didn’t know anyone of color who wanted to become a sports editor. But I did. So I pressed on.”
The Red Smith Award is voted on annually by the Associated Press Sports Editors and presented to a person who has made major contributions to sports journalism. The award is regarded as the highest sports journalism honor in the country.
Carter is the editorial director for talent and development at The Athletic. The veteran journalist has also worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal and Newsday, was sports editor at the New York Daily News and a vice president at ESPN.
Carter is a founder of the Sports Journalism Institute. His mantra, “Let’s not just talk about diversity: Do something about it!” helped lay the groundwork for SJI, which will train its 30th class this year. Hundreds of women and journalists of color have received their start through SJI’s bootcamp.
“This is a great way to honor 30 years of SJI,” Carter said. “When we sat down at the first planning meeting at the NABJ conference in Detroit in 1992, I didn’t think this would be a life-long commitment. But it has and I am proud of what SJI has accomplished.
“I would like to share the award with our many SJI supporters: the hiring managers at APSE, ESPN and The Athletic; people such as Sandy Rosenbush, who was in that first meeting in 1992 and continues to be involved today; SJI instructors Greg Lee, David Squires and Malcolm Moran, and Garry D. Howard, who fired up the 1994 class with Invictus. That poem has been a staple of SJI ever since.”
Rosenbush, who won the Red Smith in 2019, remembers that initial meeting well.
“Back in 1992,” Rosenbush said,” when Leon was chair of NABJ’s Sports Task Force and I was APSE president, we were inspired by a workshop at the NABJ convention in Detroit to think about doing something more than just working in our respective organizations. Maybe we could do something that would help people like us get a foot in the door of newsrooms.
We brainstormed with so many folks and from the conversations that started that day, SJI was born. The Freedom Forum gave us the grant that got SJI started, but never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that three decades later, SJI would be going strong and both of us would be honored as Red Smith winners for our work in the program.
“Leon is without question a great newsroom leader and a strong editor. But he is also one of the best teachers and mentors I’ve ever met. And every one of our 350 or so alums will tell you the same thing.”
Alums such as Ohm Youngmisuk, a 1994 graduate who went on to work for Carter at the Daily News and ESPN.
“Leon’s legacy doesn’t just span the decades of journalism he has under his belt. It goes so far beyond that. I am living proof of his legacy.” said Youngmisuk, who covers the NBA for ESPN. “Leon and Sandy had a vision to help young minority sports journalists get into the business and thrive. Leon wanted to diversify newsrooms, train us to be professional journalists and provide us with a network of mentors for life. Now, I am one of 350-plus students who have learned from Leon how to report, how to cover games on deadline, how to interview, how to develop sources and be a professional.
“I first met Leon when I was 19. I am now 48. And still, to this day, I can hear Leon barking at me for getting the attendance of a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden wrong — I was off by two — in one of his infamous Sports Check quizzes while we were at the University of Kansas. Leon taught me at a young age to read everything and study up on every sport, every detail, every piece of news. Even now at ESPN, the principles of news first, breaking news and getting things up quickly but thoroughly and reporting everything out are the core and essence of what I do on a daily basis. I’ve lived in LA since 2017 but the New York in me, the Leon in me, still pumps through my veins.”
SJI alumni also include Malika Andrews (ESPN NBA studio host, Class of 2016), Heather Dinich (ESPN college reporter, 1999), James Wagner (New York Times national baseball reporter, 2006), Greg Lee (Boston Globe senior AME, 1994), Soraya McDonald (Andscape cultural critic, 2004), Candace Bucker, (Washington Post columnist, 2001) and Marcus Thompson (The Athletic senior columnist, 1998).
“Leon Carter is my journalism dad. Period. He is a father to over 350 alums,” Lee said. “At the start of the Sports Journalism Institute, he never knew in his wildest dreams the impact he has had on an industry with its struggles with diversifying our newsrooms. It is also appropriate that he is getting his flowers as we are celebrating our 30th class. The award is historic as he is the only third Black journalist to receive this award since it began in 1981. Leon is a pioneer. After I met him in 1994 in the second class, I modeled my career after him. After getting established in my career, I joined him and Sandy to work on SJI. He was NABJ Sports Task Force chairman. I became a chairman. He became an executive sports editor. I eventually became one as well. His impact is immeasurable. The industry is better because of what he represents. He is a problem solver. He asked what can I do to help others achieve their goals in this industry. His contribution to being a solution to the diversity challenges in our sports industry can not be questioned. I hope others can follow his example.”
Carter joins Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith as the only Black journalists to win the Red Smith. He’ll receive the award in June during the APSE Summer Conference in Indianapolis.
Carter received 128 points, based on a 5-3-1 system for first-, second- and third-place votes. Bill Plaschke was second with 91 points and Tom Boswell was third with 76. Carter received 20 first-place votes.
The five people in the voting after Carter are automatically nominated for next year’s award. They are: Plaschke, Boswell, Mark Whicker, Dan Shaughnessy and Bill Lyon.
Other 2022 nominees were Tony Kornheiser, Terry Pluto, Loren Tate and Paul Finebaum. To be on the 2023 ballot, they will have to be re-nominated.
Voting was open to Red Smith Award winners, APSE past presidents, APSE national officers, 10-year APSE members and alumni members who belonged to APSE for at least 15 years.
“When I think about 30 years of SJI, I think about these words from Jackie Robinson: ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,’ Carter said. “SJI has had a tremendous impact.”