Sally Jenkins was immersed in sports journalism at a young age by her father, sports writer Dan Jenkins. She was a sportswriter for the Stanford student paper and was an entertainment and city reporter before returning to sports. She now writes columns and features for The Washington Post.
BORN: October 22, 1960
HOMETOWN: Fort Worth, Texas
LIVES: New York City, New York
OCCUPATION: Author; Columnist, Washington Post
I was only a child then, but I spent many a summer travelling with my father and brothers as he worked and gained a love and understanding of sports during that time. In matter of years, I, too, would begin my plight to become a sports journalist.
My father, Dan Jenkins, never pushed me to follow him into his career. But he made it look like the most glamorous job in the world. To me, being a sportswriter meant you got to go to Europe, and watch golf tournaments and ski races, and go to press boxes and watch the most fascinating football game of the week, and then entertain yourself at the typewriter.
So I really inherited the job.
I didn’t grow up with an explicit goal of becoming a sportswriter like my father, but I’m not surprised that my career path turned out the way it did. The only thing my father ever did was to encourage me to seek out the campus newspaper in my first week of college and try to get involved there.
I think I grew up around sports writing the way Austrians grow up around skiing. It’s really osmosis almost. I was very immersed in the profession from a very young age.
Having a father in journalism certainly made it easier to get a job in the field, but I didn’t settle for getting my foot in the door because of my last name; I always knew at the end of the day, I’d have to make it on my own at some point.
As our friend George Solomon used to say, having Dan Jenkins as a father might have got my foot in the door, but it wouldn’t have helped keep the door open once I was hired. I needed to prove myself as a capable writer.
Sally Jenkins with her father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, in an undated photograph. (Photo courtesy of Sally Jenkins)
When I got to Stanford, I went to student paper The Stanford Daily on my second day on campus and was immediately hired. My first beat was covering the water polo team, which played at an Olympic level at that time.
While I was covering the team, however, the Olympics were being boycotted, so the players were unable to participate in the Games.
I think I grew up around sports writing the way Austrians grow up around skiing. It’s really osmosis almost. I was very immersed in the profession from a very young age.
During my time at the Daily, I covered men’s golf and Tom Watson, football and Elway, swimming and baseball.
It was a great place to go to school because athletes were considered some of the most interesting people on campus rather than subpar students, as they can be regarded at many other universities, there was a surplus of top-tier sports, and there was the opportunity to work with names that I might be covering for the rest of their lives – until their playing careers ended, anyway.
I think that profoundly shaped my take on college athletics because when I was in school, I saw that it could be done honorably and interestingly – that it wasn’t necessary to have athletic departments completely separate from the rest of the university culture.
I spent the next four years at the Daily, where I eventually worked my way up to sports editor. In conjunction with that, I was also a part-time stringer for the Associated Press and the El Palo Alto News, giving me extra journalism experience aside from what I expected to learn in school.
I chose to gain a degree in English, as opposed to journalism, because I felt that it would be redundant to pursue a bachelor’s in journalism. Everything I needed to know about that I was already doing, I thought.
One of my greatest lessons learned while I was in college was to always make the extra effort in my reporting. When Bill Walsh, former Stanford football coach, won the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, I thought it would be a good idea to write a story about him. I called him after the Super Bowl not expecting a response, but he eventually surprised me with a call back.
If I hadn’t even made that initial contact, I would have never known if Walsh would do the interview.
That was a great lesson: Make the phone call because you just don’t know what might happen. You could sit there and say, ‘Well, Bill Walsh is never going to call a student reporter from The Stanford Daily back,’ but he did.
My time at Stanford was the closest I’ve has ever been to top-level athletes on a regular basis. I saw Elway at the library and was able to observe athletes live, compete and graduate before moving on to professional-level competition.
I would suggest that people who are studying sports journalism at the college level study your peers, study your fellow students, study the athletes who are there with you. Watch them and get to know them and get to know what they really do.
From Stanford to flash fires to Bette Midler
While I was in college, I interned at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner as a city side reporter the summer of my junior year. The Examiner was the No. 2 paper in the city and a Hearst paper that was more sensational than The Los Angeles Times. It was also a lot more fun than The Times.
After graduating from Stanford, I gained a diverse amount of reporting experience. I wrote a story about a duck that was shot with a bow and arrow on a golf course – illegally, of course. I covered the mass murders in the Wonderland Hills and wrote about flash fires that wiped out a trailer park. And after that summer immersed in hard news, I was reminded of my love of sports.
I realized I knew sports best and was most comfortable with sports writing. Initially, I thought I might want to cover politics, but that summer at the Examiner reinforced my love of sports.
It was a tough summer in a lot of ways. I think after that summer, I went screaming back to sports because I think I decided it was what I knew best and what I was most comfortable with. It was great experience, so when I came out of college, I had by then decided I wanted to be a sportswriter.
I then travelled down the California coast to San Francisco, where I landed a job covering high school sports for the San Francisco Examiner. One of my biggest challenges while I was there was in Marin County.
It rained constantly, so when I was trying to take down notes at the games, I’d struggle to be able to read them for when I was typing my story. After a year in San Francisco, I returned to the Los Angeles Examiner and took another turn away from sports, spending a year there as the assistant to the gossip columnist.
At one point, I had to call Bette Midler’s manager to find out if she exposed one breast or both while doing a stage show. My face would flush scarlet. It was terrible. It was an interesting, horrible job, but it was the only one I could get. It was a recession and jobs were hard to get.
From that experience, I learned to have no fear of asking questions that need to be asked, regardless of how embarrassing they might be.
I had returned to Los Angeles partly because of an economic recession at the time. After a year, though, I moved back to San Francisco, where I was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to serve as the beat writer for the PAC 10 in football and basketball.
During that time, I worked for Dan McGrath, who became the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and was one of my most influential editors.
He was a great teacher and great editor. I honestly think that was my first really grown-up job because I had to travel. I went all over the PAC 10 covering PAC 10 football and basketball and was a day-in,-day-out beat writer.
When I finished writing a piece, I would then turn around and work a desk shift because it was a small staff. Everyone at the office had to shuffle things around to make sure they didn’t edit their own story. I had to write headlines, write cutlines and complete the digest, all of which was a great experience.
But then I got a call from George Solomon at The Washington Post, who asked me if I wanted to apply for a job. I sent him some clips, and that began my ascension in the business. After my checkered early start, that’s the thumbnail sketch of my career in my twenties. I got my fill of the West Coast and moved back to the East Coast, where I had been raised, in 1984. I went to work as a staff writer for The Washington Post.
While there, I was exposed to professional athletes on a new level. Instead of sharing dorms with athletes, I now had to establish rapport with – and ask tough questions of – athletes who were often firmly perched in the world of professional sports thanks to strong confidence and self-identity hardened by years of experience in their sport of expertise.
Regardless of how approachable or closed-off an athlete might be, professional athletes are inherently more distant than, say, water polo athletes at Stanford. There is a certain mystique to professional athletes that sports writers are charged with demystifying; central to my job is the goal of achieving an understanding of who athletes are on and off the court or field.
There is a certain mystique to professional athletes that sports writers are charged with demystifying; central to my job is the goal of achieving an understanding of who athletes are on and off the court or field.
Athletes like Stephen Strasburg can be recognized as dynamic presences in their sport, but he is shy and even standoffish when dealing with members of the media. He does all of his talking with his body on the field of play.
Another figure who comes to mind is Len Bias. He was a nice enough kid, but he was not particularly charming and, like Strasburg, did not often open up to members of the media.
After initially covering Navy football and basketball, I later covered the University of Maryland beat and had watched Bias play in his All-American junior and senior seasons. He was a tremendous, tremendous athlete. I mean, it was heavenly to watch him play. He was drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics and there appeared to be a bright future ahead for him and the Maryland program he was coming from.
He and I went our separate ways after the NBA draft – me to my DuPont Circle apartment and Bias to his room in Washington Hall on the campus. At about 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up to a call informing me of Bias’ cocaine overdose.
I arrived at a parking lot behind Washington Hall at about the same time as Bryan Burwell of the New York Post. We found Bias’ car and looking inside to see crumbs of cocaine on the passenger seat floor. Later, we watched police pull a rock of cocaine hidden inside the car before it was towed away.
Other professional athletes were much more open, in my experience, in their personal and playing lives.
Arthur Ashe was very open and welcoming to young sports writers, and he was a lovely human being all the way around, just a prince of a man.
After his announcement to Sports Illustrated that he had contracted the AIDS virus, I went to his house to talk with him; it was a remarkable interview with a remarkable man. This was far from the first time I had spent time close by him, though.
Because he was partly based in the Washington area, he wrote tennis columns for The Post. I was covering the tennis beat for the Post in the mid-1980s, so I sat next to him in press boxes and got to see him at least once a year at the U.S. Open; I got to know him relatively well.
I felt I knew him well enough, in fact, that I gave him a hug at the end of our interview. It was nice to have that kind of interaction with him because of how stigmatized HIV was at that time, with some being afraid to shake hands with someone diagnosed with HIV.
Ashe had a great deal of social courage in how he addressed social issues relevant to his life because of both his diagnosis and his race. His efforts to fight for what he believed in led him to be arrested in South Africa for protesting against apartheid, raising funds to combat AIDS and more.
These efforts show a great deal of social courage: a quality many athletes lack. While Ashe is a hero, other athletes receive criticism because they don’t have the courage to discuss controversial personal matters, let alone controversial societal matters.
One such athlete lacking this courage is Lance Armstrong. I’ve had a unique relationship with Armstrong since I worked closely with him as a co-author of two autobiographies, “It’s Not About the Bike” in 2001 and “Every Second Counts” in 2004.
Cover of Lance Armstrong's 2000 autobiography, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," written with Sally Jenkins.
The first meeting I had with Armstrong was over dinner as an interview for the job of helping with the first autobiography. I told him then that candor is the most appealing quality in a book like that because if readers open a book and smell honesty, they’ll keep reading; conversely, if they open a book and smell bulls—, they’ll close the book. When he revealed in [January (2013] his history with doping, the apparent candor present in his books understandably came into question.
Trailer for Lance Armstrong's autobiography, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," written with Sally Jenkins.
Despite this, there is honestly still a lot of candor and honesty in “It’s Not About the Bike.” I did ask him whether he was hiding something, but he never took the opportunity to tell the truth. But surprisingly enough, I don’t feel ill will toward him.
I do, however, feel frustration because of a journalistic itch toward truth and candor and a sensation that I had been blocked from being able to write the story of his life in accordance with those ideals.
I do, however, feel frustration because of a journalistic itch toward truth and candor and a sensation that I had been blocked from being able to write the story of [Lance Armstrong's] life in accordance with those ideals.
My role in the project of writing those books was ultimately a bit different, though: No one tells the complete truth in an autobiography and writers such as myself ultimately have to agree to tell the story they want to tell. The goal is still to always do whatever possible to make sure only the truth is written on the page, but there are real limits to that ideal when working on autobiographies, people’s stories about themselves.
I made sure to not take on a role of media advisor for Armstrong and overstep the bounds of my job; this limited how much I could advise him on what to say about things he might be keeping hidden. Looking back now, though, I still wish I had struck a slightly better balance.
I would go back and tell him, “If you have something to say, it’s got to come from you first because God help you if it comes from anyone else. Because you will never be able to roll it back, no one will ever listen to a word you have to say.”
Paterno was always charming to deal with, but I never knew him well. In his final interview, though, he was generally cagey but candid and honest in some ways, while not in other ways. In the end, the latter won out; emails eventually came to light showing he was more involved in and aware of the Jerry Sandusky scandal than he had said. He told me he had simply passed the issue “up the ladder” and out of his control.
It doesn’t make me happy – especially for his family – to say that he lied, but I believe he was vain and interested in protecting the reputation of Penn State. Now, you can call that a conspiracy or you can call that whatever you want to call it – what I call it is ducking.
I approached the interview with Paterno just as I would any other: with curiosity and a list of questions I wanted to ask.
Considering the crowd in the room with me and Paterno – a lawyer to the left, a media crisis adviser to the right, as well as his two sons and wife – I realized I would have to approach this interview a bit differently. At any point, the interview could be shut down without notice, so I had to focus simply on asking as many of my questions as possible.
It was very tricky because I’m trying to get some firm answers from him and he’s dancing around, saying things like, “well, I’d never heard of rape in a man.” And you go, do you follow that up and say “are you f—ing kidding me?” Because if I do, the interview’s over because when he said that, everyone tensed up.
Despite all the landmines in that interview, I’m glad I did it. I didn’t get everything I wanted to out of it, but I did get some essential questions answered regarding his personal account of what he decided, when did he make this decision, when he found out.
Despite all the landmines in that interview, I’m glad I did it. I didn’t get everything I wanted to out of it, but I did get some essential questions answered regarding [Joe Paterno's] personal account of what he decided, when did he make this decision, when he found out.
You always come out of an interview like that knowing you could have done a better job and wishing you could have done a better job, but that’s life and that’s journalism.
And that often means making the extra phone call and walking the extra mile.
I recently decided I wanted to look into working on a feature story about Peyton Manning. He has many demands on his time, so I thought he might not respond, but I wrote to Broncos representatives explaining what I was working on, noting my conversations with Manning’s father, Archie, and David Cutcliffe, who was Manning’s offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, and pointing out it seems stupid to write that story without at least trying to get in touch with Peyton.
I got a call back. Peyton had thought about it and would likely call me, I was told.
What stood out to me the most, though, was a Buddhist monk I saw praying at Trinity Church and then chased after he left. I had been just about to finish her reporting for the day when I saw this monk, the loveliest man. He ended up being the ending of the story.
Writers should report with their whole bodies; this is the heart of reporting.
Writers should report with their whole bodies; this is the heart of reporting. This can mean getting out on the sidewalks and walking through the streets of New York all day, but it can also mean writing a piece about the racetrack of the Indianapolis 500 – not the race itself – as Dave Kindred did by standing at the base of one of its huge turns and aiming to capture how it felt to stand there.
It’s also very important to ask the right questions. Athletes can seem uninspired in their responses partly because the questions asked of them are boring and exactly what they expect to be asked.
Dan Steinberg seems to accomplish this in a way that makes his quotes seem more honest, such as when he asks DeAngelo Hall during Thanksgiving week who cooks the turkey: he or his wife.
A writer can find out more about a player and find content that can entertain both the writer and the readers by asking questions such as that than through weeks of standard beat reporting.
One time, I thought to ask who did the laundry for the Dallas Cowboys. That ended up becoming one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done. I found out that a local woman cleans the Sunday game uniforms out of her own house, but the practice uniforms are washed on-site. I asked the woman what was the hardest stain to get out.
Sally Jenkins talks about her columns and books that combine athletics and public policy on C-SPAN's Q&A, March 6, 2011.
THE READER KNOWS
Writing is magic in the sense that what you’re feeling when you write something lifts off the page like perfume and the reader smells it. If you write something that moves you enough to the point that you’re almost crying when you write it or that it’s so funny that while you’re typing it, you start giggling, that turns into a perfume for the reader. They will feel what you feel when you write.
Writing is magic in the sense that what you’re feeling when you write something lifts off the page like perfume and the reader smells it.
I honestly think journalism is stronger than ever. The means through which it is delivered is being changed, but if we can change the pipes, we’ll live. Readers crave good storytelling and good criticism; while there is also demand for breaking news, there is also demand for writers to explain to readers why they are feeling what they are feeling about this news. Great narrative journalism can accomplish this by moving readers emotionally and by setting the scene.
Stay for a moment, sit for a moment, in the situation and say in Joe Paterno’s kitchen: “What am I smelling? What am I hearing? What does it sound like? What does it look like?” The Lazy Susan is turning in the middle of the table with all the vegetables, and family members are diving at the bowls and trying to get the potatoes and everyone’s talking at once and then here’s Paterno, who used to have the loudest voice at the table, but he’s so sick with the cancer that his voice sounds like what? What does his voice sound like? It sounds like that sound of dry leaves rolling down a sidewalk.
Some criticize this and raise issue with whether such minute details are really important. I say yes because it’s the portrait of a dying man who’s attempting to rescue his reputation and explain himself to himself, and I thought that setting the scene and describing what that house was like was very important.
As for other great sportswriters, I have to put my father at No.1. But I have to put Red Smith at the top of the list as well. I also like Bob Considine and W.C. Heinz, author of Death of a Racehorse, but there are plenty of other classic pieces of sports literature I could qualify as favorites.
There are more good journalists working today for less pay than ever before. Some of my favorites include Dan Wetzel at Yahoo Sports, Tom Boswell and other colleagues at The Post and the writers behind Deadspin.
I honestly can’t praise Deadspin highly enough because of the attitude and honesty of analysis employed by its writers. It reminds me of the kind of journalism my father practiced in the ’60s and ’70s. He wrote about athletes as they really were; he described Joe Namath as “sinisterly handsome” while smoking cigarettes in bars.
Deadspin’s writers don’t take athletes at face value and offer a grainier, more honest view of American culture. Sportswriters should be able to portray athletes as they really are.
Journalists sometimes are a little like Silly Putty; you know how you used to take Silly Putty and you press it down on a comic and you peel it up and whatever pressed it down on, that’s the picture, well that’s what we do, in a sense; we’re Silly Putty for the reader.
And that’s what sport writing’s great at: It’s at getting. You talk about diagnosing and distinguishing, what sportswriting is great at is illuminating those qualities and illuminating why they’re important and why they define, for lack of a better word, character. Lance has a lot of character in a lot of ways, and he lacks character in other ways.
A lot of athletes have profound physical strength and profound mental strength and lack a different brand of strength. It’s our job to try to sort that out and try to describe it to people because those are qualities that we’re all interested in and either want to emulate or not emulate – we want to understand our own natures.
Sports writers should also be careful with the power that can come with being a columnist. It can be easy to judge figures such as Armstrong or Paterno harshly, but it can really embarrass people or rip their face off, so the writer has to be vigilant of that and only use that power in the occasional situations in which embarrassing someone is the only way to move an issue – this will need to happen to get NCAA President Mark Emmert to make a change about financial treatment of college athletes.
Sportswriting can be far more than just writing about sports and the people who play them. Sportswriting can highlight qualities essential to athletes and their identities, and writers can help inform readers of just why these qualities are important and how they define an athlete’s character.