Some journalists write. Some journalists report. Some journalists are columnists. All three describe Sally Jenkins, but just in the most basic way. Jenkins, currently with The Washington Post, is more than a sports reporter and columnist. She’s a vivid and gifted storyteller, one whose work has rightly won industry accolades, including a 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for sports columns. Her interview and resulting feature with former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno was the last major media interview he gave before he died in January. It was an interview almost every sports reporter and news outlet wanted — and one that came to her.
Her path to the top of her game came through tried-and-true ladder climbing. Though her father was an accomplished sports journalist, she left New York City for college at Stanford, wanting to make her own path into reporting on the West Coast. She did, and she paid her dues covering high school sports for the San Francisco Examiner and even working as an assistant to the gossip columnist at the Los Angeles Herald. Eventually she landed back on the East Coast with The Washington Post and has written for major national outlets including Sports Illustrated.
Of all the fields and specialties in journalism, why sports writing?
It’s what my dad did for a living (Dan Jenkins, who wrote for Sports Illustrated). All writers are told, “Do what you know best.” I had a long summer chasing ambulances in Los Angeles but went back to sports. But I also did my share of 9/11 coverage and covered the Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina. But I keep coming back to sports because I think it’s important.
What’s striking about your writing and analysis is that it’s not the typical sports column in which the reporter or columnist attends or just watches games and writes somewhat snarky and biting prose. You’re much deeper and insightful. Is that on purpose or just your natural way of writing?
I’m not a real good judge of my natural way. I’ll let other people make that judgment. I’ve always felt snark is the enemy of the columnist. You’re not supposed to criticize and blame, but rather diagnose and distinguish. Anytime I do something smart, it’s because I’ve made a good effort to diagnose and distinguish.
How did the Joe Paterno interview happen? Did he and his people come to you?
I wish I could say the Paterno story was a feat of great digging, but the fact of the matter is his people contacted me. I think based on a couple of things. He certainly wanted to give his side of the story, and to a national outlet. But I was about to pick up the phone and ask anyway, but they called me before I had the chance.
How did you prepare for it, because at that time anything involving Paterno was a tempest in a teapot on either side of the issue, from those still vociferously defending him to those who nearly wanted his head along with Jerry Sandusky. Were you prepared for the backlash you’d get from either side?
The preparation was difficult. There was a fair amount of delicate negotiating with the Paternos about the context and content. And I had to go to (Washington Post editor) Marcus Brauchli to ask if it was OK. A lawyer had to sit in, as well as a media relations guy.
I had already experienced that backlash from a previous column because I had said that Joe Paterno was in the worst position to judge Jerry Sandusky. And people went batshit. I knew the subject matter is enraging. In the interest of diagnosing and distinguishing, that’s all I was trying to do. You know there’s going to be backlash and that people would want a red-meat column and wanted someone’s blood.
What’s your approach to setting up a narrative like that, because you could just do a straight reported piece. But it’s the opening graf that makes it a spectacular read and compels the reader to keep going. You write of Paterno, “His voice sounded like wind blowing across a field of winter stalks, rattling the husks.” So, do you have a trick or a process you go through for that kind of narrative storytelling?
The best trick, and it’s not even a trick, is just to trust your senses. The best lesson you can learn
I learned from a guy named Dave Kindred who wrote about walking the track at either the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona. You have to trust your eyes and your sense of smell, and write about them. I wasn’t just listening to the content of his words but how he was saying them. I wasn’t the only one just to talk to him, but the only one to go inside his house. Details can be just as important as facts. You can reveal news just like you break it. Sometimes revealing things about people is just as important as breaking news. And it was very difficult to bear down with him when you know he was dying.
You’re also an accomplished author. How did you get on the book track? Is that just the natural progression for someone in your field?
Yeah. I think anyone who decides to write for a living, especially for a sports writer, it’s the grand prix. It’s hitting the long ball. If you’d asked me at 22, I’d have said it was out of my reach. But as I got older, sure, I want to ride the tall horse. It’s a natural expansion if you write for a living. I waited years for the right subject. The publisher came to me, to write a football book for women. And I wrote a small, funny book called “Men Will Be Boys.”
You wrote a book about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for Native American children and the football team that produced Jim Thorpe. There’s the ongoing debate about the use of Native American names and references as sports mascots at the high school, college and professional levels. What do you think of such names?
You know, I think it’s a subject that I hadn’t ever thought about very deeply (before the book) but probably felt torn about. The Florida State Seminoles is one way, but the Washington Redskins is a slur, there’s no two ways about it. And you certainly feel about it a little differently when talking to members of the Native American community.
I know it’s 2012, and the idea of “oh, wow, a woman sports writer” is just hackneyed and pedantic. But there’s still a power imbalance, it seems. Did you ever face any backlash or feel you had to prove yourself in the newsroom or with those you cover?
I’ll be perfectly honest. I’ve never felt it. Nora Ephron said it best: Be the hero of your own life, not the victim. That’s my favorite Nora Ephron quote. Every raise or promotion I got in this business came from a man. Men have been far more promoting of me in this business (than negative). I don’t think there was a power imbalance. And that’s just my experience.
But Billy Martin was a truly unpleasant human being toward women. There was stuff like that. If you bitch about it, they win, because they know you somehow let it bother you. The best thing is to ignore it. It’s where people don’t let a female reporter go about her business (just because she’s a woman) where you have trouble.
The sports journalism and commentary field is full of big names. Any people you particularly admire or who influenced you?
Shirley Povich. I also cut my teeth on Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. A lot of my development as a columnist came from trying to find my own voice that was as smart as theirs.
Tom Boswell is still an influence. Jim Murray and Red Smith. I still read Red Smith when I need a refresher course.
To those young journalists coming up — female or male — who want to break into sports reporting, what’s your advice?
Report with your feet. Shoe leather every subject. You can’t ever impress on yourself enough that the extra visit you make or the extra work you put in or the extra person you talk to will make a difference. It’s been 1,000 times that last little burst of effort gains something that I was really glad I had.