We all have people in our lives who set the gold standard--the person we strive to impress and whose approval we chase. When Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins was named the 2021 recipient of the Red Smith Award, her name was added to a long list of her role models, but, even more importantly, she reached the gold standard set by her late father, Dan Jenkins.
No stranger to recognition, Sally Jenkins was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. She also was named APSE’s top sports columnist and Society of Professional Journalists' columnist of the year four times each. But the Red Smith Award carried deeper meaning for her.
“The call came on a very strange but meaningful anniversary,” Jenkins said, referring to the two-year anniversary of her father’s death.
Adding to the significance of the recognition, Dan Jenkins, revered as one of the best sportswriters of his time, won the Red Smith Award in 2013, and Sally introduced him at the awards ceremony.
Throughout her career, her father has been the standard for her success.
“I still write for him,” she said. “I still kind of hear his voice in my head, and I still feel like I'm sort of trying to write to his standard.”
Jenkins’ 37-year career has been characterized by boldness. She is known for addressing social issues in the world of sports, and her columns calling for equality and fairness in the industry earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2020.
“Sally is fearless in being willing take on, or to critically write about, any institution or individual,” Washington Post sports editor Matt Vita said. “She sets the standard for everybody in the sports department at the Post, but also in the entire newsroom.”
Former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon, who gave Jenkins her start as a columnist, agrees. He says Jenkins is “not only a great writer” but also “picks subjects to write about that are right on the cusp of the news and get people thinking.”
Jenkins credits Solomon for his influence both on her career and the industry. “It was George's idea to make me a columnist, he wanted to give a woman the column,” she said.
Jenkins, who will be honored in August at the APSE convention in Las Vegas, is the fourth woman in a row to win the Red Smith Award. Two of the three previous winners, Sandy Rosenbush and Christine Brennan, also saw their careers take off at the Washington Post under Solomon in the 1980s.
“George Solomon, who hired me, and hired Chris and Sandy, made a concerted effort on this subject to hire women,” Jenkins said. “The Red Smith Award is great because Red, it’s great because my dad, but it’s also really great because of George. The fact that three of the four women on that list worked together at The Washington Post is a testament to the fact that our section has been one of the greatest pioneers in women in sports.”
Solomon and Dan Jenkins greatly shaped Sally Jenkins as a columnist, but she also drew inspiration from Smith, who, like her father, remained an influential writer his entire life.
“His stuff stayed young, and the same is true of Jim Murray, another guy on that [Red Smith Award winner] list,” Jenkins recalled. “My dad wrote, and was still writing, like a young man until he was 90 and I try to write to that standard, or to impress those guys even though they’re not around anymore.”