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Trailblazer sports reporter Liz Clarke reflects on her 37 years in journalism

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you say you don't like sports because it's all about the X's and O's and wins and losses, then let me introduce you to Liz Clarke. She brings thoughtfulness and humanity to reporting on sports. And she has seen a lot of it, from nine Olympics to NASCAR to the three different names of the Washington football team over her tenure. After 37 years reporting, 25 of them at The Washington Post, she is hanging up her keyboard and notebook and pen.

Liz Clarke, welcome back.

LIZ CLARKE: Thank you so much. I'm so humbled by your words. I think I could weep. Thank you.

DETROW: I mean, I want to start with the flavor of writing that you bring, though. Who taught you about writing just past the wins and losses?

CLARKE: Oh, actually, my first sports editor, Gary Schwab, who was at The Charlotte Observer, that's when I switched from news to sports. It was Gary who really helped me understand that the best reporting comes when you allow yourself to observe and feel and truly do your best to understand the setting and the context and the individual you're writing about. And it's OK to make observations that are not strictly facts, something you can look up. That sounds so basic, but it was revelatory to me.

DETROW: Yeah. In the end, it's just stories about people, no matter what beat you're covering, you know?

CLARKE: Yes.

DETROW: Though, I do want to ask how - on that note, how do you feel about the future of sports journalism? Because, I mean, from my perspective, I feel like so many of the great literary outlets have shrunk or folded. And there's just such an obsession with analytics and stats. And sometimes I feel like I'm reading a stats textbook when I'm trying to read about the baseball game. Do you feel like there's still space for storytelling right now?

CLARKE: I will always believe that great writing, great storytelling finds its audience. I mean, to me, the most important thing is that sports writers continue asking why. You know, there's quite often a profound cost of being a world champion gymnast at 16 or figure skater...

DETROW: Yeah.

CLARKE: ...Or for all this passion about college sports. Does anything like amateurism still exist today? You know, to me, it's on the reporter to ask the questions that prompt the reader to think and go, oh, wow, I didn't know that.

DETROW: You wrote a lot about NASCAR. What drew you to that sport?

CLARKE: That was circumstance, to be honest. In my time at The Charlotte Observer, pretty much everyone at The Charlotte Observer needed to help covering NASCAR at least twice a year 'cause it was huge in that part of the country. I became absolutely fascinated. And this was in the early '90s, when the sport was booming. And, to me - I was an American history major with kind of a special interest in the South, and I quickly was able to connect the dots between this very hardscrabble kind of sport of American ingenuity. The whole legends of NASCAR in that time were folk heroes of this region, whether they used to run moonshine - and that was Junior Johnson, who was very much alive when I started covering it - or Richard Petty, who was a second-generation stock car driver. And, you know, the late Dale Earnhardt, who was just one of the greatest athletes I have ever had the privilege of covering. It was a fascinating slice and swath of Americana for me.

DETROW: Last question. What's one of your favorite memories of being in the press box and seeing a moment and just realizing this is going to be a sports moment we're thinking about...

CLARKE: Oh.

DETROW: ...And talking about decades later?

CLARKE: Well, you're right in that it's hard to pick, but there's one that endures - the 2010 World Cup...

DETROW: Yeah.

CLARKE: ...Which was hosted by South Africa. And I had never been to Africa. I certainly studied the history of apartheid. And to be in South Africa 20 years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, to see - to feel what the power of reconciliation and leadership was - and at the final, you know, Nelson Mandela came out. It was very near the end of his life. And so to be in that press box and see Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, that was just a life's privilege.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Liz Clarke, thank you so much for talking to us.

CLARKE: Oh, thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAINT HARISON AND TIANA MAJOR9'S SONG, "HOMIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.