Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins was taken aback when her editor, Matt Vita, emailed her on the morning of May 4 asking to talk on the phone.
Jenkins had just turned in a column, and usually when she does that, Vita just calls her. She wondered if there had been backlash to a recent article or if something was wrong.
“This is a glass half-full, glass half-empty phone call,” Vita, the Post sports editor, told his longtime sports columnist. He then told Jenkins she had just been named a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for distinguished commentary.
She didn’t even know she had been nominated.
“To me it was entirely full, the glass wasn’t half-empty,” Jenkins said. “I was stunned— absolutely stunned.”
Jenkins became the first person focused solely on sports to be a finalist for the Pulitzer for commentary since 1990, when Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times won the award. She’s also the first woman to be a finalist for sports-focused commentary. The honor came not long after she earned third place in APSE’s Class A 2019 column writing contest.
Her package of columns submitted for Pulitzer consideration was selected by the Washington Post editorial staff, and covers a wide range of topics, including the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s fight over pay inequality; the debate over name, image and likeness for college athletes in the NCAA; Holocaust-inspired figure skating costumes, and sexual misconduct allegations against NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“Sally’s success is no surprise to me, but what makes me smile the most is how proud her wonderful father, the late Dan Jenkins, was of her—and would be to this day,” said 2020 Red Smith Award winner and USA TODAY sports columnist Christine Brennan, who was Jenkins’ coworker at the Washington Post from 1985 to 1989.
After graduating from Stanford with a degree in English Literature, Jenkins’ first job was covering high school football for the San Francisco Examiner, where she worked for a year. She spent a short time as an assistant at the Los Angeles Times before she returned to the Bay Area to cover high school and college sports for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Jenkins worked at the Washington Post from 1985 to 1991, at Sports Illustrated from 1991 to 1997 and at Condé Nast Sports for Women from 1998 to 2000. She rejoined the Post in 2000.
Though her career is built on her own merits, Jenkins attributes a lot of her success to the lessons her father, a renowned sports journalist and humorist, taught her. The elder Jenkins, who died in March 2019, worked in the industry for over six decades, including 25 years at Sports Illustrated. He also authored several books, the best-known of which was “Semi-Tough.”
Jenkins spent most of her childhood in New York City and often accompanied her father on trips while he covered golf tournaments in the summer.
The two would sit together and go through “The Treasury of Great Reporting,” featuring journalistic work dating to the 16th Century. Father and daughter took turns reading leads aloud, dissecting each piece and discussing what made them distinctive. To this day, Jenkins says she can recite Bob Considine’s account in the New York Daily Mirror of the 1938 boxing match that saw Joe Louis and Max Schmeling square off.
“When I started writing, my dad basically said, ‘You better interest yourself first, or you’re not going to interest anyone else,’” Jenkins said. “He always told me to entertain yourself on the page, and then the reader will be entertained.”
Jenkins’ columns combine humor, detailed reporting and insight to make her points. Every time she tackles a new topic, Jenkins has two guidelines for herself: Be unapologetically female and find a way to connect sports to the greater world—or as she likes to put it, “the rest of the paper.”
One of the columns in her Pulitzer package shows this philosophy at work. The column includes this sentence: “The USWNT is after something far more subversive than just better pay,” and works in quotes from feminist movement leader Germaine Greer and fictional character Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) to argue that Megan Rapinoe and Co. were leading their own cultural movement.
“It just tickled me to death,” Jenkins said. “I got a kick out of seeing how far off-field I could go in terms of connecting dots and quoting people you wouldn’t necessarily see on the sports page.”
In another column, Jenkins makes a point that Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and the NBA were giving China power by speaking out against Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s comments that praised pro-democracy protesters in the country. She completes her argument by seamlessly working in the intricacies of the country’s government and the financial factors in play.
“What she decides to write will really catch you by surprise,” Vita said. “And that’s a wonderful thing.”
What didn’t take her colleagues by surprise was her recognition from the Pulitzer committee—especially George Solomon, the assistant managing editor for sports at the Washington Post from 1975 to 2003 and who is wrapping up his second career as director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland.
“[She’ll] win the Pulitzer Prize someday, just like she’ll win the Red Smith Award someday,” Solomon said. “She’s a brilliant columnist.”