U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Derek Jeter’s Second Career: Public Intellectual?

A few days after his playing career ended, Derek Jeter unveiled a curious new website: The Players’ Tribune, “a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes, bringing fans closer to the games they love than ever before… provid[ing] unique insight into the daily sports conversation… [by] publish[ing] first-person stories directly from athletes.” Jeter is listed as the “Founding Editor,” and Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, has signed on as a “senior editor.” As a brand-new site (launched, it seems, October 1st), little else—the rest of the masthead, for instance—has been revealed, and it will be very interesting to see where this thing goes.

The site’s self-description is modest, but it is not hard to see its potential to make a considerable impact not only on the way sports is reported and consumed in the US, but in the way athletes take on social and even intellectual responsibility in society. I titled this post so that it would read as a bit of a joke, but I would not be surprised if it is borne out to some notable extent. Jeter has long been one of our most reticent superstars—has anyone ever gotten a juicy sound bite out of him?—so it seems to me quite significant that he is the one behind this new venture. It bodes interestingly, and perhaps it bodes well.

The nexus between sports and intellectual life in the United States is generally casual, confined to private passions and the occasional act of journalistic slumming (e.g., David Foster Wallace’s sublime “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”), but we would do well not to mistake the potential for athletes to serve as more than just the receptacles of nerdy veneration. I want to outline a few trends that I have observed which demonstrate an increased capacity and readiness among athletes for self-consciously taking on a more active role in public debates about complex issues, from domestic violence (the topic of Wilson’s piece) to institutionalized racism to “Big Data” to ongoing material transformations within higher education to the politics of employment.

First, the massive expansion of sports commentary driven by the need to fill airtime on multiple television channels and in innumerable podcasts has meant that athletes and retired athletes are being given much greater experience and considerably more latitude in speaking with the press or even as the press than ever before. ESPN has, I believe, quite elaborate recruiting and training programs in which current athletes can enroll to audition, more or less, for future gigs not just as color commentators during live broadcasts but as analysts on shows like Baseball Tonight or NFL Sunday Countdown. More and more, it seems, those programs tackle questions that fall “outside the lines,” asking for more than evaluations of a player’s performance or a team’s chances at the playoffs. We’ve come a long way from when this clip from Bull Durham seemed like a completely accurate picture of what players were told on handling the postgame locker room media:

to the point where former athletes became talking heads ripe for an SNL parody.

Second, outside the formal media outlets, athletes have been among the most enthusiastic adopters of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. And, while those formats are obviously not conducive to extensive and nuanced opinions about, say, the mascot of the Washington football team, the way athletes have taken to these platforms demonstrates a deep desire—despite the outrageous abuse they receive from trolls through Twitter in particular—to control their own image without the mediation of their team and its owners and executives. Clearly, teams do try to clean up and police their employees’ social media usage (as does ESPN, which Bill Simmons has found out a couple of times), but the intention behind Twitter’s popularity among athletes is unmistakable: they want a public voice.

Third, the impact of fantasy sports and video games on the relations between athletes and their employers may turn out to be as significant as the introduction of free agency: like that enormous development, fantasy sports and video games further erodes the idea that a player’s team is the final answer to all questions about the player’s physical well-being, financial compensation, and social role. Now many people outside a team’s fans care about Robert Griffin III’s health or his contract status because he is on their fantasy team: how Washington treats RGIII is of great concern for numerous Bengals or Cardinals or even Cowboys fans. As (the excellent sports columnist) Dave Zirin said:

And we have already seen college athletes sue for remuneration over the use of their likeness in video games, turning this seemingly marginal aspect of their careers into a useful wedge in finally (hopefully) forcing colleges to treat them like workers with actual rights. Because of fantasy and video games, professional athletes—even those without major endorsement contracts—now have tangible evidence that the team that employs them is not the entire horizon for their value—both financial and social. In turn, their potential audience is much broader than their team’s fan base.

Last, there seems to be a sort of generational divide among sports fans and sportswriters that becomes apparent weekly, if not daily, and that primarily splits on issues of race and gender. One might look to a website like Deadspin for a regular chronicle of this divide, and see the Richard Sherman episode (you should read Andrew Hartman’s take on that again) as its recent high point. On one side of this divide we have aging white male sportswriters and sports fans who are visibly uncomfortable around, say, players with “excessive” tattoos (like Colin Kaepernick) or the issues raised by out gay players (like Michael Sam) or by the whole idea of women’s professional sports. On the other side stands a younger generation (still very white and male) committed in general to progressive social values of inclusion—to a platform that is more or less feminist, anti-homophobic, and anti-racist and increasingly critical of the going economic order that runs professional sports teams primarily for the profits of the team owners. Whether that latter criticism runs to an indictment of capitalism or simple outrage at the mulcting of a city to fund a stadium entirely with tax dollars while the owner contributes nothing but profits immensely, there is a deep skepticism about the whole role of owners in professional sports that is a fairly giant step away from the usual cant about “selfish players.”

This generational divide is one in which athletes like Richard Sherman and probably like Russell Wilson seem fully intent on participating. They seem sick and tired of seeing their actions and images grotesquely distorted by the older generation of sportswriters—and by the almost entirely white and male cohort of professional sports owners and league commissioners. Whether it is Donald Sterling or Roger Goodell, athletes are slowly opening up about their deep discontent with a system run by people whose paternalism has often masked a thorough hypocrisy, at best, and a corrosive disdain for their bodies and their persons at worst.

As a Red Sox fan, it pains me deeply to wish Derek Jeter well on anything, but I hope The Players’ Tribune takes off and gives athletes a way to speak directly and openly to all of us. I think our public discourse will be the better for it.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. For a number of reasons, I’m deeply skeptical that Jeter’s venture will amount to much. Jeter’s entire brand has been established and maintained by a supportive (some, including me, would say fawning) media, yet this is going to offer straight talk directly from the athletes? To say that he’s an unlikely figure to offer blunt and honest discussion is an understatement.

    The entire premise of unfiltered talk suggests that the media have somehow hindered athletes or unfairly tarnished their collective reputation, which sounds a lot like “straight talk” politicians seeking to bypass the media so that they can put forward their preferred narrative. Is there any reason to think that athletes will generate anything but self-serving pieces? Is there any reason to think that athletes will actually write these essays rather than employ their agent’s resources? Or at the very least not have the work vetted by their agent? The canned non-answers of professional athletes are part a media strategy established by agents—don’t damage your brand!—and employed to great success by Jeter himself. I would be stunned if the output from this project actually offers a critical take on anything of substance.

    And assuming that what is generated is bland, athlete-as-hero-overcoming-adversity stories, is North American culture really interested in that anymore? The Jeter narrative, I think, is the exception that proves the rule. We’re long past that uncritical narrative about athletes. We are very much a celebrity-driven culture, yes, but I liken it more to how the Greeks regarded their gods: superior but flawed, where their virtues and vices were magnified, which made them worth telling stories about. Likewise, we marvel at the talents of athletes and their glamourous lives, but we also cannot get enough of celebrity failures, catastrophic and petty (look at TMZ’s success). Does a publishing model that will almost certainly promote the narrative of athlete as heroic role model have the ability to counter the dominant flawed-god model? Again, I’m skeptical. There will be an audience for this kind of product, but it’ll be a tiny one.

  2. Neil,
    I certainly understand your skepticism, but in my post I tried to outline some reasons for hope that this site–or future ventures like it, if this turns out not to succeed–is more than just brand-inflation by Jeter and some of his buddies. But let me engage more directly with your skepticism.

    First of all, I think that athletes’ desire for “unfiltered” spaces to talk personally is first and foremost about trying to evade the control of their teams and leagues over their speech and self-expression, not as much about evading the media’s distortions of their image. I think there is a sense of frustration evident even in the brief comment by Jeter on the site with the kinds of questions he is asked by the media and the kind of stories that drive First Take-type sports shows, but let’s be honest: players must know that the media serves at the pleasure of the major sports leagues, not the other way around. Each league actually is a monopoly: as much conglomeration as there has been in sports media, that is not the case on the other end.

    I also see the fact that Jeter is behind this as an encouraging sign rather than a reason to doubt. You’re absolutely right that the media has always fawned all over him, so why didn’t he just get a high-paying gig at ESPN? Why does Jeter want his own site to provide “canned non-answers” when he actually has the entire sports media willing to run a ten-minute segment any time on anything he might wish to say? I don’t know how Jeter thinks he can do a better job inflating and protecting his brand than ESPN already does. To me, that indicates there is something more going on. And I may be just a bit more sanguine than you that many athletes can handle their own in writing for themselves. There are a lot of smart athletes out there; we just rarely have the opportunity to see their intelligence on display.

    Lastly, I do think that this site is meant to publish self-serving pieces–that’s actually what I feel is the biggest cause for hope. Professional athletes have very different interests–material, emotional, and cultural–than both the media and, more importantly, the ownership and administration of the pro leagues and teams. If this site allows them to lobby the public for their causes and interests, good.

    The site may turn out to publish bland self-promotion, but if it does, I would chalk that up to the real pressures on athletes to toe the company line. There has been a very long history of athletes–especially black athletes–ostracized and condemned when they speak their mind, particularly on hot-button social issues. I think there is growing resistance among athletes to that kind of control, and expanding avenues for contesting or evading it. I hope this site, or other sites like it, can be one.

  3. I agree that a site that allows athletes to speak out without worrying about team, agent, or league controls would be potentially liberating and expand the value of sports celebrity in positive ways, but will this model actually accomplish that goal? Pro sports is thankfully a long way from Bowie Kuhn being able to discipline Jim Bouton for *Ball Four* with little pushback, but pro leagues still wield a mighty discipline hammer. If players can be and are forced to delete tweets or apologize for them, how much freedom would they have with a long-form piece? Even accepting Jeter’s desire at face value, how does that get around the punitive powers of pro sports?

    But I keep coming back to the question of Jeter being behind the venture. He’s a guy who was all-but-bulletproof with the media, yet he never offered anything but trite cliches. He had a platform and yet never used it. Nothing about him suggests boat rocker. If this kind of operation were started up by, say, Curt Schilling, a smart guy and one always more than willing to give his opinion regardless of what others might think, I’d be more optimistic. Even Jose Canseco would impress me more as he has a track record of pushing back against the corporate sports narrative. Perhaps Jeter is Nixon going to China, but I’m not holding my breath that such a perfect athlete-as-company-man is the vehicle for this. Given that he’s also expressed interest in one day being part of an ownership group, I just don’t see him as sincere in pushing something truly radical and pro-labour.

    All that said, I hope that in a year or two you can make me eat my words.

  4. Andy: Great post.
    Neil & Andy: Excellent conversation. I like points you have both made, though I lean a bit towards Neil’s skepticism. That said, even if Jeter does little controversial with it (progressive, regressive, or otherwise), I can see others doing much more (e.g. Sherman, or perhaps another Kluwe type).

    In sum, we’ll see. I think that about 5 percent of all professional athletes have it in them to be suave and politically astute at once. I’d love for them to have a platform, and perhaps Jeter can enable that. – TL

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