Derek Jeter's new site won't kill traditional sports journalism -- It's already dead.
“I had written all I was going to write, if the truth had been known, and there is nothing wrong with that." - Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
In March of last year, ESPN hit what many considered to be a new low for the ostensibly journalistic organization. On the television show "First Take," commentator and walking thinkpiece Skip Bayless posed the kind of question that wouldn't even pass muster in a conversation between two drunks at a sports bar: Does the on-field performance of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman justify his trash talk?
To weigh in, Bayless invited Sherman himself to the program, and what resulted was a shouting match disguised as journalism (which with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle seems to have become a popular genre of "reportage"). ESPN's Bill Simmons, in what wouldn't be the last time he would flout his corporate overlords, called the incident "embarrassing to everyone involved." ESPN's stance on the "conversation" was made clear when it suspended Simmons from Twitter for three days.
This altercation was the logical conclusion of what so much mainstream sports journalism has become. With the rise of Twitter and other social media outlets, professional athletes no longer need a reporter to transcribe cliched post-game quotes like, "The opponent played a good game," or "We executed Coach's game plan." And unbound from the safe confines of the press conference room, athletes have become much more honest and interesting in their social media posts -- often to a fault. In any case, it's left the traditional sports journalist, like Bayless, with little else to do but search for conflict and controversy, often where none exists.
So when just-retired New York Yankee legend Derek Jeter announced his new media site "The Player's Tribune" by saying it would let athletes "connect directly with our fans, with no filter," it made me think: Doesn't that already describe the new sports journalism? These days, ESPN is as likely to cut to a pull-quote from an athlete's Twitter account as it is to show boring press conference footage.
Meanwhile, sports journalists who are now largely cut out of the relationship between fan and athlete either try to create controversy themselves, like Bayless, rely on often-specious data-heavy analysis like Nate Silver, or (and this is my favorite incarnation of the modern sports journalist) turn sports coverage into a celebration of the culture and zeitgeist surrounding it, a technique pioneered by the greatest sports blog of all time Free Darko and continued in spirit by The Classical and Simmons' passion project Grantland. Furthermore, SB Nation's Jon Bois has done God's work in turning sports journalism into performance art, like in this post where he tries to make his own basketball video game with hilarious results.
So the question remains: Do either athletes or audiences need Jeter's "Player's Tribune"?
At best, it stands to be a PR mouthpiece for athletes looking to shape their own media narratives. It's a shame too because sites like Deadspin already publish guest posts by athletes but those are filtered through the organization's editorial process to avoid mere hackery (Say what you will about Gawker's standards -- Deadspin has journalistic integrity). By providing a legitimate-looking outlet and the fake sheen of reputability to posts likely written by athlete's PR flacks, "The Player's Tribune" stands to function like sponsored content for sports stars' personal brands. It's a dream come true for the biggest leagues' powers-that-be -- Stay off Twitter, they can tell athletes, and instead use this platform where every statement will be editorially vetted by someone with your (and the league's) best interests in mind.
That doesn't serve the public and it doesn't serve free expression. As much as I wish he didn't feel this way, I'm glad Paul George tweeted his support for Ray Rice -- at least now I know what kind of person he is when it comes to domestic violence. As far as journalists, it really only hurts the old-school hacks who, having potentially lost another source of fodder for stories (Twitter), will have to either think up some thoughts of their own or, sadly, create more fake drama like Bayless and his fellow horde of blowhards. That, or we'll see a lot more talking heads quoting from "The Players' Tribune."
[illustration by Brad Jonas]