Jeter launches website to give a voice to athletes

New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter didn’t spend a lot of time retired before he started a new career.

After a hall of fame baseball career that saw Jeter act cautiously around the press, Jeter announced he’s going to become a member of the Fourth Estate – at least the sports end of it. Jeter launched the Player’s Tribune, a web site dedicated to allowing athletes the chance to speak out in their own words, therefore bypassing the gatekeepers that are sports media. The masthead of the web site describes the aim of the site as:

“The Players’ Tribune aims to provide unique insight into the daily sports conversation and to publish first-person stories directly from athletes.” (site here)

Jeter followed by penning a letter that described his vision for the site. Soon after, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wrote the first piece on the site, bringing up domestic violence, calling it an issue, plugging his new Why Not You Foundation and admitting that he was a childhood bully.

It was actually a pretty nice piece. That doesn’t mean Jeter’s idea is a good one. Too many questions arise from this venture:

Who is actually writing the pieces? Will this be the actual athletes writing their emotions and thoughts onto the site or will it be their public relations writers, making sure that the thoughts are sanitized and stay on message, whatever that message may be. Given the current state of media, count on this being a public relations site.

Will readers be getting an unvarnished look into the athletes’ thoughts, an intriguing idea, or will they be getting a highly sanitized version of the athlete that will give them a chance to control the narrative about a specific event? The thought of certain athletes giving their unvarnished view of the truth would certainly draw readers. After all, if athletes truly wanted to talk about certain issues (Michael Sam, the Richie Incognito incident last year, sexual assault) this sort of site would offer a wonderful platform for the athletes.

Considering that those online posts would be open game for other media to disseminate and critique, the odds of an honest, open site are pretty low. Which means that this will most likely turn into a site that tries to control the media with heavy doses of mediated spin. Most members of the press wake up dizzy from all the spin they deal with daily and go to bed nauseated by that spin. The thought of more, guised under the platform of the athlete’s unvarnished attempt to reach out to the audience, is depressing at best.

Looking at the first piece, by Wilson, it’s easy to see the site taking this route. The piece starts out with Wilson admitting he was a schoolyard bully. Then Wilson talks about domestic violence, mentions the issues in the NFL without naming anyone in particular, shills his new foundation and asks everyone to work together to help change the world.

It was nice. A cynic might say it was fluffier than a roll of Charmin toilet paper but journalists are already cynics and these kinds of words might be used to connect with an adoring fan base – right?

The biggest problem with the site is there is no pushback. How can an audience find out about an athlete if all the audience gets is the athlete’s point of view.  Barry Bonds surely thought he was a pretty good guy. Not many others did, but that shouldn’t stop Bonds from the opportunity to go out and explain what a wonderful guy he really is. If the press isn’t there to ask tough questions, who will ask them? Will any journalistic standards be followed?

Of course, giving an athlete to platform to tell his or her side of the story would be a wonderful idea. The thought of giving athletes an unvarnished pipeline to an audience has potential. Until the public relations hacks get control and the narrative is scrubbed to avoid any possible controversy.

Jeter became one of the most popular players to ever play for the Yankees because he was a great player and because he avoided media controversy at every opportunity. His site purports to give athletes a voice. The only question is whose voice?

Dr. Scott Lambert is an English/Journalism professor at Millikin University. Lambert’s interests are in sports media, media ethics and media history.