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:
I used to write that fantasy fball “thingified” players, made fans less sensitive to physical trauma of sport. On that I was largely wrong.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) September 7, 2014
The rise of fantasy football has coincided with profoundly more attention on physical toll of sport. Not sure that’s just a coincidence.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) September 7, 2014
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.