April 23, 2015

Pulitzer_Medal_color300dpiDave Anderson never expected the call. In 1981, the New York Times sports columnist learned he was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

“It really came as a surprise,” Anderson said. “I didn’t even know I was nominated.”

Anderson, now 85 and still churning out the occasional column for the Times, recalled his big honor Monday just minutes before the announcement of the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. He had hoped the list of winners would include someone from his old press box gang, but he knew it was a long shot.

“They don’t pick many people from sports,” Anderson said.

Indeed, it was another year when sports were snubbed by the Pulitzers. The sportswriters went 0 for 14 in the Pulitzer’s journalism categories. There was only one sports-related story among the finalists: Walt Bogdanich and Mike McIntire of the New York Times in national reporting for stories exposing preferential police treatment for Florida State football players who are accused of sexual assault and other criminal offenses.

Anderson remains a member of a very small fraternity of Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporters and columnists. Only three columnists have been cited: Besides Anderson, Arthur Daley of the New York Times [1956], Red Smith of the New York Times [1976] and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times [1990].

On the reporting side in recent years, George Dohrmann of the St. Paul Pioneer Press won in 2000 for his reports of fraud in the Minnesota basketball program. Ira Berkow shared the 2001 Pulitzer for national reporting for his article “The Minority Quarterback” in a New York Times series on race in America.

The next sports Pulitzer winner wasn’t until 2013 when John Branch of the New York Times won for feature writing for a story on skiers killed in an avalanche. Sara Ganim and the Harrisburg Patriot-News were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for their terrific coverage of the Jerry Sandusky saga. Ganim, though, wasn’t a sportswriter and the mess at Penn State went way beyond the realm of a sports story.

Based on basically the once-in-a-decade trend, the next Pulitzer winner to come from sports might not occur until the 2020s. George Solomon, who was the long-time sports editor for the Washington Post, calls the Pulitzer situation “distressing” as it relates to sports.

“Sports have been underrepresented by the Pulitzer committee,” said Solomon, the director of the Shirley Povich Center for sports journalism at Maryland. “There have been many terrific investigative stories coming from sports, such as on concussions and college sports. You have great narratives and profiles about people and institutions. I don’t think [the committee respects] sports as much as other subject matters in journalism.”

A case in point are the sports columnists. Certainly legends such as Povich, Grantland Rice and Jimmy Cannon, giants among giants, were more than worthy of winning the Pulitzer. And the fact that Smith and Murray had to wait until they were so deep into their careers is absolutely absurd.

Since Murray, in 1990, it now is 25 years since a sports columnist won a Pulitzer for commentary. Meanwhile, numerous columnists and critics from other sections have been recognized.

“When you think of the number of great sports columnists, it is quite remarkable that there haven’t been more winners,” Solomon said.

Anderson, the Pulitzer winner, offered a solution to get more recognition for sports.

“Shouldn’t [the Pulitzers] have a sports category?” Anderson said.

Then Anderson thought about his idea for a moment.

“Well, maybe that would cheapen it because somebody would get picked every year,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s idea actually exists for other elements of reporting. There are Pulitzer categories for criticism and editorial writing. In his book, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” Frank Deford, writing about the lack of award recognition for sports, bemoaned the fact that there is a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning.

Deford writes: “Hey, I love political cartoonists. But how many of them are there left? What? Two dozen? And how many newspaper sportswriters are there? Thousands. And for them, the Pulitzer people deign to give out one to a guy at the New York Times every generation or so.”

It seems unlikely that the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in a sports category would feel as if the award was cheapened. Certainly editorial writers and cartoonists don’t feel that way. After all, that person is forever known as a Pulitzer Prize winner.

However, it also is doubtful that the Pulitzer committee will create a sports category. If history holds true, sports reporters and columnists once again will face long odds for next year’s competition.

“It’s a shame,” Solomon said. “You could pick [several] important topics every year where sports journalists do great work. They deserve to be recognized.”

*****

Recommended reading on sports journalism:

My column on the fallout from Britt McHenry story for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.

Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price went off on a beat reporter during a profanity-filled tirade.

Marquette’s Chris Jenkins interviews women sports reporters about sexism and social media.

Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report

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Sherman wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 27 years covering the 1985 Bears Super Bowl season, the White Sox, college football, golf and sports media.…
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