By Meghan Rominger
IUPUI Sports Capital Journalism Program

Leon H. Carter’s accomplishments and accolades could likely fill volumes and maybe even libraries. But what’s even more impressive is the impact Carter has had on proliferating and then nurturing generations of sports journalists, especially those who previously felt out of place or alone.

On Friday, Carter, Editorial Director for Talent and Development at The Athletic and co-founder of the Sports Journalism Institute, received the 2022 Red Smith Award at the APSE Summer Conference in Indianapolis. A sports journalism paragon since beginning his career as a sports copy editor in 1981, Carter has proven himself a model for and mentor to journalists from underrepresented backgrounds throughout his career – and has done it all with enviable style.

“When people knock you down, when people say they don’t believe in you, stand tall. I’ve had to deal with all those things,” Carter said. “When people don’t believe in diversity, I say get in their face, stand tall. That person is so important. It is more important today than ever before.”

Carter is the third Black journalist to win the Red Smith Award – joining Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith –  but stands alone in his impact on integrating diversity into news organizations across the country.

In 1992, Carter and 2019 Red Smith Award winner Sandy Rosenbush founded the Sports Journalism Institute (SJI), a non-profit organization “designed to attract talented students to journalism through opportunities in sports reporting and editing and enhance racial and gender diversity in sports departments nationwide.” So far, Carter and Rosenbush have hosted 30 SJI classes and sent over 350 alumni into newsrooms across the country.    

“Leon’s contributions… are not confined to a page. They’re in your newsrooms. They’re in your digital centers. They’re at work on sidelines and in studios and in press boxes all over the country,” Rosenbush said Friday.

Carter has become a prolific mentor and a sports journalism father figure by teaching budding journalists the importance of preparation, professionalism and humility – traits that often go overlooked in the age of social media, but which set Carter’s mentees apart from the crowd.

“No one’s too big or too small for him to talk to,” said Greg Lee, Senior Assistant Managing Editor, Talent and Community at The Boston Globe.

“That’s what Leon is about. He wants to help improve the industry. He wants to see you do better, and he’s going to take the time to have that conversation and to nurture and develop. So yeah, Leon has a lot of accomplishments, but he’s very level-headed, and he’s grounded.”

Photos by Kelly Zehnder

And of course, Carter has always practiced what he preaches. After beginning his career as a copy editor with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Carter moved through the ranks at organizations such as Newsday, the New York Daily News, ESPN and The Athletic, collecting journalism awards and honors at every stop along the way. Carter served as Freedom Forum’s Journalist-in-Residence at Norfolk State University in 1992 and received the National Association of Black Journalist’s Legacy Award in 2009.

“When you dedicate your career to excellence and diversity, invest in countless numbers of areas to improve what you perceive as an immense slight: You will get your props,” said Garry D. Howard, APSE President in 2009-10 and the first Black president in the organization’s history. “Today is that day for Mr. Carter.”

But Carter has excelled as a mentor beyond the field of journalism. He has instilled resolve and mettle into his SJI students and mentees, empowering them to follow their passions and finish the work, no matter where it takes them.

“When I decided to transition into acting, he was just very supportive and just telling me that ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,’” said Nick Creegan, a 2012 SJI alum and current actor on hit shows like “Batwoman” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime.” 

“And he was very supportive in that in that job transition. He told me, ‘The main thing is to not get excited and continue to work hard.’ He just stayed a true friend throughout the whole journey.”

After celebrating the 30th SJI class this summer and sending students off to intern with organizations like ESPN and Yahoo! Sports, Carter still isn’t finished. He took a brief moment to reflect on the honor Friday but mostly took it “easy.”

“I also stand here before you knowing that the two previous winners of color did not get a chance to stand here,” Carter said. “And that really, really gets to me – because give us our flowers while we can smell them.”

More than four decades after the Red Smith Award’s inception, Carter became the third Black sports journalist to win the award and the first to accept it in person. But through his dedication to mentoring young journalists and amplifying underrepresented voices, he has all but ensured he won’t be the last.