George Solomon Shares a Fond Farewell

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George Solomon Shares a Fond Farewell
Jun 30, 2020

In the middle of a pandemic, with sports journalism experiencing its most difficult period in years, I leave the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism as director July 1 to the capable hands of Mark Hyman and assistant director Kaitlyn Wilson.

Since the opening of the center in 2011 — and the start of my teaching at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2003 — I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of dedicated, ambitious students looking to make their mark in sports journalism.

Over the past five or six years, many of these same students on their visits to the College and Center during their final year of high school, displayed great enthusiasm as they thought about entering the profession, many hoping to become the next Scott Van Pelt, Michael Wilbon or Christine Brennan. During those visits, parents would often take me aside and ask: “Will my kid ever get a job?’’

It was a legitimate question, and the response was positive, noting there will always be a demand for news and story-telling. The distribution of such news is changing rapidly, often from traditional newspapers to websites and social media. But sports seemed immune, until COVID-19 overwhelmed the country and world, shutting down leagues and moving sports to the backburner of newspapers and television news.

Newspapers such as The Washington Post, which have had a separate section devoted to sports forever (the first separate sports section, students, appeared in 1885 in the New York World), moved sports to the back of the Style section. The New York Times eliminated its Sunday sports section, providing readers a couple of pages buried inside the paper. The Athletic — the subscription-based website that hired many of the best sportswriters in the country – furloughed staffers.

Sports Illustrated, once the weekly giant among sports periodicals, let nine employees go recently, after reducing its staff by 40 in the past year and cutting back to about one issue a month. That’s the same Sports Illustrated of the late Frank Deford, Bill Nack, Dan Jenkins and so many more, including current stars such as Scott Price and Tom Verducci.

Ben Strauss, who covers sports media for The Washington Post, recently wrote: “Sports journalism, once a mainstay of daily newspapers and local TV news across the country, already was teetering from the upheavals of the digital era. But while many news organizations have taken a severe financial hit in recent months, sports departments have been devastated by the novel coronavirus, which has wiped out sports schedules and media advertising revenue virtually simultaneously.”

In the wake of these dismal reports — with the immediate future of professional and college sports leagues in question — Merrill College will welcome the incoming freshmen class in less than two months (who knows where they’ll be housed). And at least one freshman, Bennett Solomon from Walt Whitman High School, will begin his academic journalism career at the University of Florida, where his father and grandfather graduated.

I like to think if Shirley Povich, whom our center is named for, was alive (he died in 1998 at the age of 92), he’d squeeze Bennett by the arm, the way he did, and tell him to “go after it” and not be deterred by the negative noise. He would say in due time the games will resume, the players will play, the coaches and managers will coach and manage again and the same social conflicts that Povich wrote about as far back as the 1930s will need coverage.

Povich’s 75-year career covering sports for The Washington Post included some of the most memorable sports events of the 20th century, including the epic Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney boxing match, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth’s farewells, Washington winning the World Series in 1924 — with Walter Johnson on the mound — and Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,132 in Baltimore in 1995. But beyond the games, Povich wrote about how sports, race and politics were all related, just as they are today, and he penned important pieces on Major League Baseball’s reluctance to integrate until Jackie Robinson in 1947, George Preston Marshall’s stance against hiring black players for the Redskins until 1962 and the unfair treatment of protesting medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He also befriended Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American in the integration of the press box in the early 1940s, and he advocated early on the hiring of women and blacks at The Washington Post.

In that spirit, Povich’s children — David, Lynn and Maury — generously endowed Merrill College with the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism in 2005 that I occupied for one year before being succeeded by Kevin Blackistone, now a Professor of the Practice at Merrill College and a true force in the business. In 2011, the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism was created. And now, the George Solomon Chair in Sports Journalism, to be occupied by Mark Hyman, thanks to the generosity of the Poviches, friends of the center and Merrill College.

In the words of the center’s own description, “The Shirley Povich Center reacts to sports topics throughout the year by inviting the journalists who cover them to speak to the students and community. This, along with other programs throughout the year, provides students real-life examples of their class subjects.”

Of great importance have been the center’s summer camps for high school students, — thanks to Alan Bubes’ funding — the annual spring workshops for high school and college students staffed by professionals from the Washington-Baltimore region, sending students to professional associations (AWSM and APSE), covering the Super Bowl for Capital News Service, scholarships to students, thanks to Jon Ledecky and Maury Povich, and 17 fall symposiums at the University of Maryland, 16 moderated by Povich.

The Povich website, edited over the years by Beth Mechum, Kate Yanchulis and Kaitlyn Wilson, spotlighted a feature called, “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” that saw students interview many of the top 70 sportswriters in the country. Our December panel at the Newseum centered on important topics in sports and was an annual highlight.

The Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith award honored journalists who over the years have worked for equality in race and gender in sports. Previous winners were Claire Smith, James Brown, William Rhoden, Michael Wilbon and Bob Costas.

A nod of appreciation for years of support to Deans Lucy Dalglish and Rafael Lorente — and before them — Tom Kunkel, Chris Callahan, Lee Thornton and Kevin Klose. To those supporters of the center who never said no, a huge thank you: Scott Van Pelt, Tim Kurkjian, Joe Browne, Don Graham, Peggy Engel, Christine Brennan, Sasho Cirovski, Judy Angelo, Ray Schoenke, Ike Richman, Gary Bettman, Kevin Merida, Jeremy Schaap, Jimmy Roberts, Larry Michael, Robert Klemko, Diana Huffman, Harvey Sanders, Garry Howard, Jane Leavy, Len Shapiro, Carl Sessions Stepp, Liz Clarke, Tina Cervasio, Moe Dweck, Joe Yasharoff, Vince Doria, Joe DeFrancis, Matt Vita, Judy Zane, Roger Cossack, Bonnie Bernstein, Gary Williams, Kevin Anderson, Damon Evans, Glen Bucco, Irene Pollin, Tom McMillen, Monica McNutt, Richard Jacobs and Matt Vita. And thanks to Vanessa Nichols-Holmes for making sure our books were straight all these years.

The Merrill College development (money-raising) team of Anne Martens, Lele Levay Ashworth and Katie Aune helped us – along with the Poviches, always the Poviches — keep the creditors at bay and share the title with me of the “Willy Loman” of the Amtrak shuttle.

I will miss students like Ryan McFadden, a Povich summer camper who went to Iona College and is now a Masters student at Merrill covering prep hockey for The Washington Post. And Wes Brown, who had been coming to Povich Center events since he was 8 years old and is now a UM student, after three years at junior college and freelancing for multiple websites. I’ll miss them, along with all the other students, including those at The Diamondback, The Left Bench, the Maryland Baseball Network and Testudo Times.

At this point in the column, Shirley Povich would squeeze my arm and say simply, “Enough.”

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