By Steven Dilsizian
For The Povich Center
May 9, 2018
WASHINGTON — Michael Wilbon, a sportswriter and co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” was filled with emotion after becoming the fourth winner of the Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award at a luncheon Sunday at Nationals Park in Washington.
“Overwhelming. It’s overwhelming to me,” Wilbon said of winning the award.
Many of Wilbon’s family members, colleagues, and friends gathered at the stadium to watch the longtime sports columnist graciously accept an award named after the two late African American journalists who were Wilbon’s role models.
“It puts me in the company of my idols,” Wilbon said. “These guys [Lacy and Smith] didn’t want to hear about what couldn’t be done … they helped integrate baseball.”
The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism presents the Lacy-Smith Award annually to a journalist who utilizes their platform to focus on improving racial and gender equality in sports. Throughout his career, Wilbon has never shied from shedding light on inequalities in sports and improving the social discourse.
While Wilbon has won numerous other awards, this one, he said, was different.
“I’m proud of other awards I’ve gotten, but when you are put in a certain company, your behavior ought to be scrutinized,” Wilbon said. “Does he live up to the bar that they [Lacy and Smith] set? The accountability that is involved is overwhelming.”
Lacy and Smith were pioneers in the sports journalism field. Lacy was the first African American accepted into the Baseball Writers Association of America, while Smith was writing for a major daily newspaper during a time when African Americans rarely had such opportunities. Both Lacy and Smith were recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors with the Red Smith Award for their distinguished careers in sports journalism.
Lacy and Smith were able to make strides during their time in the field of sports journalism and spent their entire careers campaigning for racial equality in sports, including pushing for years for the integration of Major League Baseball and covering Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues in 1947.
Wilbon, who has worked in sports journalism for almost 40 years, said there are still societal changes that need to be made.
“I think there are some tough times on the horizon because we now have a world in which exclusion is becoming trendy,” Wilbon explained.
Wilbon grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern University. He had two summer internships at The Washington Post before being hired full-time in 1980. He currently works for ESPN and ABC — he co-hosts “Pardon the Interruption,” covers the NBA and writes columns for The Undefeated.
His longtime colleague at The Post and ESPN, Tony Kornheiser, presented the award to Wilbon.
“If you’re quicker, if you’re sharper, if you’re smarter … you’re going to get the job, that’s how it works,” Kornheiser said. “That leads me to presenting this award to my friend Mike Wilbon of almost 40 years now, who’s quicker and smarter and sharper than the other guy.”
Kevin Blackistone, a sports columnist at The Post and Merrill College professor, has known Wilbon since 1977, when they tattended Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
“Mike deserves [the award] because like Smith and Lacy, he’s very much been a pioneer in terms of the way we cover sports and the way we think about sports,” Blackistone said. “He’s not afraid to talk about the importance of race and sports.”
Blackistone also spoke at the luncheon, as did Lynn and David Povich, children of the late Shirley Povich; Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of Merrill College; Jackie Lewis, vice president for university relations for the University of Maryland; and Damion Thomas, curator of sports at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Another one of Wilbon’s Northwestern classmates, USA TODAY sports columnist Christine Brennan, said Wilbon is more than deserving of the award.
“To see this today, this is a culmination of everything that Mike lives and breathes,” Brennan said. “For him, this has never been a job.”
It was difficult for Brennan to distill Wilbon and his accomplishments into one word, but she described her friend and colleague as simply “spectacular.”
Wilbon joins Claire Smith, James Brown and William Rhoden as a winner of the Lacy-Smith Award. Wilbon has a simple message to the future winners: “We have a responsibility to live up to the behavior, the conduct, the passion, the intellect, the ability to discern … we have to live up to the bar [Lacy and Smith] set.”
“Michael Wilbon is cut from the same mold as Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith,” said George Solomon, director of the Povich Center. “They spoke up for what they perceived was right for sports and the country. So does Mike Wilbon.”