Newsday series earns Award for Excellence in Youth Sports

An exhaustive and impactful project that focused on helmet safety for 10,000 student-athletes playing high school football in Long Island has earned the Award for Excellence in Coverage of Youth Sports, presented by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

The Newsday project -- titled “Hard Knocks” and published Oct. 7, 2015 -- included four stories as well as easy-to-understand graphics for newspaper readers and a complementary interactive online component (newsday.com/helmets) with a searchable database of every high school football helmet on Long Island. Users could search the database by helmet model or school, and compare helmet inventories of every school. The online content also included a behind-the-scenes look at the work of helmet safety researchers, a mini documentary and interview excerpts. 

Newsday conducted a seven-month investigation for the project. The paper has 116 high schools with football programs in its region and it evaluated concussion reports from 104 schools and gathered helmet inventories from 108. In addition, Newsday interviewed more than 80 people for the project -- neurologists, researchers, helmet manufacturers, state athletic officials and school superintendents, as well as coaches, players and parents.

The report found dozens of schools with low-performing helmets, according to the accepted national rating standard that ranges from one to five stars.

More than just important and timely work, “Hard Knocks” prompted change.

Leading up to publication of the project, 23 of the 60 schools with low-performing helmets said they would take those helmets out of circulation immediately. One school, which initially defended its one-star helmets, informed Newsday the day before publication it was investing nearly $40,000 on new five-star-rated helmets that would be put into use as soon as they arrived.

“This package is classic watchdog journalism, “ said John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center. “Newsday’s work -- well-presented and easily understood -- served to protect Long Island’s young athletes and prompted positive change.”

Dozens of submissions for the award came from news organizations, large and small, across the country. The award was created in 2009 to recognize creative, in-depth and innovative coverage of youth and high school sports by broadcast, print and online journalists. After the entries were reviewed by internal faculty screeners, three finalists were forwarded to external judges. 

Those judges -- Jim Buzinski of Outsports, Emily Kaplan of Sports Illustrated and author/sports writer Michael Weinreb -- are members of the Alumni Council for the Curley Center. They were unanimous in their selection of Newsday for the award -- which will be presented April 18 on the University Park campus during an Associated Press Sports Editors regional meeting. The award comes with a trophy and an honorarium.

“Newsday is honored to be recognized with this distinguished award,” said Jim Baumbach, who was the lead reporter on the project. “There are so many talented people at Newsday who helped make this so successful. We’re thrilled that our work led to greater awarness of head safety in football and sparked change.” 

Previous award winners were: The FanVSN.com, 2014; “Varsity Blues,” The Tampa Bay Times, 2013; John Branch, The New York Times, 2012; Rob Rossi, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 2011; George Dohrmann, “Play Their Hearts Out,” 2010; and Bob Hohler, The Boston Globe, 2009.

Founded in 2003, the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, outreach, programming and research. The Curley Center’s undergraduate curricular emphasis includes courses in sports writing, sports broadcasting, sports information, sports, media and society, and sports and public policy, which is cross-listed with the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. 

Students in the Curley Center get an abundance of hands-on opportunities. The combination of the Penn State College of Communications, one of the largest programs of its kind in the United States, and the 31 sports of Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics provides fertile territory for aspiring sports journalists. 

What the Curley Center regularly offers often goes far beyond campus, too. Students have covered the Croke Park Classic, NASCAR, the Final Four, the Olympics and the Super Bowl in recent years. Most recently, Curley Center students chronicled the historic trip by the Penn State baseball team to Cuba. Later this year, sports journalism students from Penn State will cover the Paralympics in Rio.

The Center was established with Distinguished Professional in Residence and Professor John Curley and Doug Anderson, then dean of the College of Communications, serving as founding co-directors. It was named in September 2006 for Curley, whose more than five decades of newspaper experience included work as a reporter, editor, publisher and, ultimately, president, CEO and chairman of the Gannett Co. He was the first editor of USA Today.

Last Updated March 11, 2016