For 30 years, Leon Carter’s life has been dedicated to everybody but himself.
In a decades-long, decorated sports journalism career that has seen stops at outlets such as the Louisville Courier-Journal, Newsday, the New York Daily News, ESPN and now The Athletic, Carter worked his way from a farm in Virginia to the upper echelons of the sports media world.
After rising so high and working so hard for so long, it may seem like winning the Associated Press Sports Editors’ 2022 Red Smith Award is finally getting Carter the recognition he deserves. But that’s not what he’ll tell you.
To him, this honor — and he is honored to have won it — is important to him because it recognizes the most important career choice he’s made. Carter helped found the Sports Journalism Institute in 1992 with the goal of getting women and minorities into prominent roles in sports media. To him, winning the award on the eve of the year of SJI’s 30th class is a recognition of the impact of the program and the dedication to diversity that has become his calling.
“This is an exclamation point on all the hard work that has gone into SJI for 30 years, and I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the 30th class than for APSE to pay tribute to one of the co-directors,” Carter said. “It’s just a perfect way to celebrate the 30th class.”
Carter didn’t help found SJI with the hope of making it his life’s work. Neither he nor Sandy Rosenbush, a 2019 Red Smith Award winner and another of SJI’s co-founders, was sure it would last longer than a few years. After being inspired at the 1992 Detroit NABJ Convention, Carter and Rosenbush just knew they had to do something to increase newsroom diversity.
“A lot of discussion with a number of folks that summer — especially those at the Freedom Forum, Leonard Hall and Alice Bonner key among them — pointed us toward a program for college students, because they could go right into newsrooms as interns,” Rosenbush said. “And that’s how it started, and how it’s still going!”
Carter, who said he looks for new career opportunities every 10 years, could’ve done the same with SJI. But he said that, after a few years, he knew he had to stick with it because it became so much more than a journalism boot camp.
“Each class developed long-standing relationships with their classmates, and also with their instructors, and also with people who came in each year to speak to the class,” Carter said. “All of a sudden, a strong mentoring network became part of SJI, and when students graduate, they know that they have their classmates, because they went through this bootcamp together, but they also have mentors they can reach out to when they have struggles in the newsroom.”
It was a mentorship network that Carter never had, starting out as an aspiring sports editor, and one that he hopes will continue to flourish for more than 30 years after SJI’s founding.
“He wants all of us to shine; he wants all of the alums to shine,” said Chris Lopez, a 2018 SJI alumnus now working at FOX Sports. “But we are shining, really, in the light that he has created for all of us.”
Lopez is just one of many SJI alumni who expressed their gratitude for Carter’s guidance and encouragement. Rhiannon Walker, a 2014 SJI alumna and staff writer for The Athletic, said she measures someone’s success by how they’ve carried people with them as they succeed. In her eyes, that is what this award truly commemorates.
“I don’t know if there’s enough words for me to describe how generous of a person he is,” Walker said. “Not only with his time and his energy, but with his insight and his genuine interest in what you’re doing — and not just within the workspace, but as a person.”
Tashan Reed, a member of SJI’s 2018 class who now covers the Las Vegas Raiders for The Athletic, first met Carter as a first-year journalism student at Missouri. Four years later at SJI, Carter still remembered their first meeting.
Now, four years removed from SJI, Reed has instilled in himself the selflessness and commitment to diversity that Carter demonstrated and continues to demonstrate to him. Reed said he knew it was his duty to help future SJI alumni as much as he could to succeed in their own careers.
If there’s any way of measuring Carter’s success, it’s the legacy of service he’s left behind.
“For us to collectively get where we want to be and improve diversity in the industry, we gotta help lift each other up,” Reed said. “That’s what Leon and Sandy did when they founded this, and it’s really on us as alums to carry on the torch.”