fb-pixel Skip to main content

Gwen Knapp, sports writer who looked at the big picture, dies at 61

Gwen Knapp, an editor for the New York Times sports department, in 2014.EARL WILSON/NYT

NEW YORK — Gwen Knapp, a prominent sports reporter and columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The San Francisco Chronicle and most recently an editor on the sports desk of The New York Times, died Friday in Manhattan, New York. She was 61.

The cause was lymphoma, her sister Susan Knapp McClements said.

Ms. Knapp spent nearly 30 years reporting on sports. She became a sports columnist in 1995, one of only a handful of women in the country to have that title at the time. Her predecessor at The San Francisco Examiner was Joan Ryan, one of the first.

Ms. Knapp was particularly well known among sports fans in the Bay Area for her focus on subjects such as racism, sexism and drugs. Her columns drew the ire of some of the biggest names in sports, including champion cyclist Lance Armstrong and baseball star Barry Bonds.

Advertisement



As early as 2001, before Armstrong’s third of seven consecutive Tour de France victories and well before most other American journalists, Ms. Knapp raised doubts about the validity of his performances.

In a long letter to the editor of The Chronicle in 2004, Armstrong complained vociferously about Ms. Knapp, writing, “I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance-enhancing drugs.”

Nine years later, he admitted having taken banned drugs during all his Tour victories.

Ms. Knapp wrote extensively about Bonds, who was crushing home run records amid widespread speculation — which he has always denied — that he was using performance-enhancing drugs.

She was regularly a finalist for newspaper writing awards presented by Associated Press Sports Editors and won the top award for columnists in 1998. Among the columns the judges cited was one about NFL star Reggie White’s remarks that homosexuality was “one of the biggest sins.”

Advertisement



She became an editor at the Times in 2014. She worked on the foreign and national desks before she found her way back to sports, where she most recently oversaw coverage at night and was a mentor to young staff members, especially female ones.

Mary Gwen Knapp was born Nov. 18, 1961, in Wilmington, Delaware. Her father, Laurence Knapp, was a boat pilot on the Delaware Bay and River. Her mother, Eleanor (Agnew) Knapp, was a director of operations at the Hagley Museum and Library.

Ms. Knapp got the sports bug from her mother, who rooted for the nearby Philadelphia Phillies. “We grew up with WDEL, with the Phillies game on, and my mom yelling at the radio when she was driving us to swimming,” McClements said.

After graduating as the valedictorian of Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Ms. Knapp attended Harvard University, where she majored in history. She was on the swimming team and was the sports editor of the student newspaper, The Crimson.

One day, while home on a break from college, she asked her father, who had played high school football, to explain the sport to her. She had decided to pursue sports journalism, and she needed to study up.

After graduating from Harvard, Ms. Knapp covered high school sports for The Wilmington News-Journal before spending almost a decade as an editor and a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. She then spent 17 years as a columnist in San Francisco, first at The Examiner and then at The Chronicle, after the two newspapers’ staffs were combined in 2000.

Advertisement



While Ms. Knapp was a clear-eyed and forceful writer, the reporting and writing process did not come easily to her.

“For her, putting her heart and mind out on the page was in some ways a bit frightening,” said Chuck Culpepper, a sports reporter for The Washington Post and a close friend. When Ms. Knapp lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, he said, she would sometimes ask house guests to leave for the day so she could struggle with her writing alone.

Her sister Rebecca Knapp Adams described Ms. Knapp working into the wee hours and fretting: “Am I getting both sides? Am I being fair here?”

Her columns on Armstrong and Bonds came not from a place of moral absolutism about drugs but from that sense of fairness, said Nancy Cooney, a colleague from The Inquirer. The two men’s comments and behavior “offended her sense of right and wrong,” Cooney said.

In her final column for The Chronicle, in 2012, Ms. Knapp took stock of the many years she had written about drugs in sports and explained why it mattered.

“Without the belief that sports have some higher value than entertainment, they forfeit their special place in our culture,” she wrote. “For all the flaws of the sports, they represent the purest meritocracy we have. They advanced desegregation in this country ahead of the general population, and for the same reason, they should get over homophobia immediately.”

Advertisement



In addition to her sisters Susan and Rebecca, Ms. Knapp, who lived in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, is survived by her father and another sister, Nancy Knapp Piccione.

While she was best known for her treatment of serious topics, Ms. Knapp appreciated sports for all they had to offer. The article of hers that colleagues remember most was written July 4, 1993, after the Phillies completed a doubleheader at 4:40 a.m. To fully capture the delirium of the game, the latest-ending one in baseball history, she quoted not just players and managers but also umpires, grounds crew, announcers and fans.

“Mickey Morandini, dragging himself through the clubhouse and past his weary teammates, seemed to understand the continuum,” she wrote. “‘See you today,’ he said. And he was right.”