Alice Bonner might not be a sports journalist, but she’s certainly been inspired by them.
One of her earliest mentors was Earl Caldwell, the legendary journalist of the civil rights movement who got his start as a sportswriter at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Then, as a general assignments writer and editor at the Washington Post in the 1990s, Bonner was consistently impressed with the work of George Solomon, David DuPree and Michael Wilbon, among others.
Yet despite being exposed to a plethora of Black sportswriters from the outset of her career, Bonner still lamented the general lack of racial and gender diversity that existed on sports desks nationwide. She especially remembers that deficiency being a topic of discussion at the 1992 NABJ Convention in Detroit.
“I remember sitting there listening to the discussion about, as they used to say, the lily-whiteness of the front office in the sports world, the absence of women in sports reporting, and all those issues,” Bonner said. “But it wasn’t my idea to do something direct at the time.”
Two other journalists present at those meetings — Leon Carter and Sandy Rosenbush — were inspired by the discussions taking place and conceptualized the next steps. The seeds were then planted for what would become the Sports Journalism Institute, a boot camp and internship program that takes the most talented female and minority sportswriters from America’s colleges to its biggest newsrooms.
After years of success and broken barriers, SJI will be welcoming its 30th class this summer to Arizona State University. A total of 16 journalists – five women and 11 men – from 12 universities across the United States comprise the milestone group.
Bonner had begun working at the Freedom Forum in the early ’90s, helping to fund upstart journalism initiatives. Meanwhile, Carter was working as a Freedom Forum journalist-in-residence at his alma mater, Norfolk State University.
Carter, Rosenbush, Bonner and Leonard Hall – one of Bonner’s employees at the Freedom Forum – continued to workshop the idea.
“[Carter being at Norfolk State] was a perfect storm for us,” Hall said. “So we said, ‘Let's make this happen.’ And Leon was that person we knew could get behind it and lead it. And the idea of that was taking it to Norfolk State.”
SJI’s first class was held at the school in the summer of 1993. Bonner and Hall secured $75,000 from the Freedom Forum, which was earmarked to fund the program’s first three years.
“I couldn't be happier at the way things turned out,” Hall said. “I was there for the first three [classes], and I was thrilled to find out that it went on for two years and five years, 10 years, like wow — and it's still going on. So that requires a lot of dedication of the people who are still involved in it.”
For his efforts then and now, Carter will be awarded the APSE’s 2022 Red Smith Award in June at the organization’s summer conference in Indianapolis.
With over 350 alumni reaching the loftiest heights of sports journalism — you’ll find graduates at places such as ESPN, The Athletic, Fox Sports and The Washington Post — SJI has undoubtedly had an impact on diversity in the industry.
Yet even after 30 classes, Bonner and Hall both acknowledged that there is still just as much work to do as there was in 1992 in terms of diversifying newsrooms. Bonner especially noted how important increasing the numbers of women in sports journalism has become.
“The specialness of the SJI was that it reached beyond race and ethnicity and included women where it was very much needed,” Bonner said. “So I remember Sandy and Leon, in particular, with great pride and just real appreciation that they kept going.”
When remembering his role in starting SJI, Hall also expressed a deep pride.
“I love the fact that the legacy continues, and it really feels like a legacy,” Hall said. “I was thrilled to be there at the very beginning. I was close to a lot of the people in the program, a lot of the students in the program, who are now old hats like me. I'm thrilled that it got to this point, and I hope that the momentum is going to continue.”