The Player’s Tribune, a new, online publication founded by NY Yankee’s retiree Derek Jeter, strives to be a platform for the “unfiltered voices of professional athletes.” Senior editors include Russel Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Nascar’s Danica Patrick, and more will be announced over time. Recently, fastcompany.com released an article questioning the future of sports journalism in light of publications such as the Tribune and other athlete-produced content. Sports writers Sean Kelly and Jared Funk-Breay tackle this alleged ‘threat to our craft’ in this week’s Coin Toss.
Sean Kelly: Athletes just want a voice, they don’t want to steal that of journalists.
First of all: This is one of the greatest innovations in sports journalism I’ve seen. Jeter’s Players’ Tribune is going to give fans an unprecedented glimpse into the minds of their favorite players.
In terms of a threat to sports journalists, I think this has been greatly exaggerated. It comes down to the difference between the Tribune and a sports journalist’s goals. A sports reporter’s main job is to get news out. Much of what they report is breaking news in the form of game recaps, updates from practice or press conferences. The Players’ Tribune won’t publish breaking news stories. They’re athletes, they don’t have time for little things like that. Athletes are content to leave grunt work such as that to reporters because it’s not their job.
The Players’ Tribune addresses a totally different niche of topics. It’s goal is not to provide fans with news; it is to provide them with athlete perspectives.
There is a distance between fans and players, and this distance transforms players into gods. Somewhere in this gap between fans and athletes, the athlete’s humanity is lost. Athletes are worshipped to the point where fans forget that there is so much more to their heroes than just athleticism. They have their own emotions, their own problems and their own perspective.
This gap is what the Tribune is going to bridge. It gives fans a chance to see who their heroes really are. All of the articles are written in the first person. So when you read the stories, you can almost hear the athlete’s voice behind it. It’s like they are talking to just you. Derek Jeter said his goal was to give players a way to directly connect to their fans, to let athletes “share what they really think and feel.” It gives them a chance to remind the fans that athletes are only human.
The Player’s Tribune isn’t going to kill traditional sports journalism. It is going to provide fans with unparalleled access into the minds of their favorite players. Fans will always need regular reporters to get their news. The two can coexist because they serve two entirely different segments on the storytelling market.
Jared Funk-Breay: The Tribune isn’t journalism, and it can’t offer the same experience.
Before I get into the meat of the argument, I do have to agree with you that The Players’ Tribune is not going to be the demise of sports journalism. Just as the government needs to be kept in check by the media, so does the sporting world. Players, coaches, owners and sporting organizations in general need to be held accountable for what they do on and off the field. Because of that, journalists will always be there. I don’t think there’s much of an argument on that point.
But The Players’ Tribune is not trying to hold its industry accountable. It is trying to tell stories reporters have been writing ever since sports became popular. I am going to disagree with you in that the publication won’t be infinitely successful.
From a fan’s perspective, hearing what athletes have to say without any filter really won’t be that exciting. Hear me out. Whenever athletes have an opportunity to speak their voice, in general, it is pretty boring. Watch any press conference — players rarely are open to delving into the gritty details that fascinate fans, and when they do, there’s almost always a reporter there getting it out of them.
Justin Forsett, running back of the Baltimore Ravens (and of my fantasy team, the Funk City Fighting Humans) recently blogged about his faith. While it was somewhat interesting to read about how his faith impacts his play, he offered some of the most vanilla football analysis you could ever read:
“First of all, we have been able to win some games. We are on a two-game winning streak, and I’ve been able to help out and have an impact on those wins,” Forsett wrote.
That’s about as boring as it gets. And that’s the kind of stuff you’re going to hear from athletes day in and day out, whether it’s in a press conference or in some supposedly revolutionary new medium. Athletes are not going to lay it out on the line anywhere in public. It’s in their nature, and probably even in their best interest.
What sports reporters do — at least the good ones — is observe the athletes and tell stories based on what they see, whether it’s good or bad. You are going to get a more realistic viewpoint of what a particular athlete is like from a reporter than from the athlete themselves. Think of it this way: Your friends can probably provide a more accurate description of what you’re actually like than you can.
Sean Kelly: It’s not vanilla if it’s controversial and personal.
I hear you, Jared. It’s true, press conferences can be extremely boring because players and coaches rarely give any meaningful insights. They give the sort of vanilla answers you described. But I think there is a reason for that — and so does Derek Jeter.
Jeter said, “I realize I’ve been guarded. I learned early on…that just because a reporter asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer…I do think fans deserve more than ‘no comment’s or ‘I don’t know’s. Those simple answers have always stemmed from a genuine concern that any statement, any opinion or detail, might be distorted. I have a unique perspective…[Athletes] just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend.”
Jeter created this website so athletes could have the chance to give more in-depth answers to our questions. Bland answers often come from fear of their words being misconstrued. Now, they can explain themselves to fans without the worry of their message being taken out of context. Using a first person essay style, Jeter has given players the chance to say what they think, and explain themselves fully, which is something they do not have the chance to do in a short press conference.
Take Russell Wilson’s story, for example. Wilson was the first athlete Jeter brought in to write a story. It was about possibly the most important and controversial topic in the NFL right now: domestic violence. In the story, Wilson not only gave fans a moving account of his views on the issue, but he also revealed that he used to be a bully. Wilson describes how beating kids up in elementary school gives him a unique perspective on the issue of domestic violence. Most importantly, he stresses that there is no place for it on his team or in the NFL.
In the midst of a turbulent season, when fans have begun to question the integrity of the NFL, Wilson addressed the issue head on. He wrote directly to fans, assuring them that while no one is perfect, everyone can strive to be. That is not what I would call a vanilla answer.
This is the potential power of The Players’ Tribune. It gives players such as Russell Wilson a chance to present their ideas without fear of being misunderstood.
Wilson says, “I’ve tended to avoid controversial topics throughout my career, but in my first piece for The Players’ Tribune, I wanted to be open and address something that’s important, timely and relevant.”
In a press conference, if asked about domestic violence, Wilson probably would have said “no comment.” But The Players’ Tribune gave Wilson ample time and space to make his opinion known and to flesh out his ideas. After all, who knows how domestic violence is affecting the league better than the players themselves? They know the intricacies of life as an athlete that fans, and even reporters, could never understand. Much of the power of this publication comes from the fact that it is from the player, for the fans.
Jared Funk-Breay: Players don’t have time to be journalists.
I can’t argue that Russell Wilson’s piece wasn’t interesting and insightful because it was. In this case, a player was willing to speak about a hot-button issue and add to public conversation. But this case is unique and rare.
We won’t be seeing a plethora of ground-breaking works from The Players’ Tribune in the future. The fact of the matter is, players don’t need Derek Jeter to help them voice their opinion. For years, athletes had blogs, magazines, public forums and social media at their disposal, but for the most part they haven’t utilized these platforms. The idea that influential athletes are going to come out of the woodwork because Jeter is telling them to just doesn’t seem plausible to me.
Players will continue to do what they do best: play the game. The bulk of sports coverage will always come from sports writers, who know the ins-and-outs of the league just as well as athletes do. Not to mention that athletes will be extremely uncritical of their peers- that is, their teammates, coaches, opponents, etc. Their perspectives can be riveting, but they will always lack the unbiased, reliable voice of sports writers.
Also, most athletes are just not in a position to write an interesting feature article in the first place. They are obviously focused on their jobs and probably don’t want to be a distraction in the locker room. That’s the way sports culture has always been, and I would personally be surprised if The Players’ Tribune changed this.
I’ll still be checking out whatever becomes of The Players’ Tribune, but I’ll be looking to the Bill Simmonses and Wright Thompsons of the world for most of my sport-reading needs in the foreseeable future.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sean Kelly at Sean.D.Kelly@colorado.edu.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Jared Funk-Breay at Jared.Funkbreay@colorado.edu.