“Derek” is thinking about his next step. “Russell” wants to make a difference. “Danica” updates her relationship status. “Blake” is really glad his creepy boss is gone.
In any other setting, these are obnoxious Facebook status updates or bad headlines in gossip magazines. But these thoughts belong to “Derek Jeter” and “Russell Wilson” and “Danica Patrick” and “Blake Griffin,” or at least carry their bylines in The Players’ Tribune, a stylish repackaging of social-media vanity as “glimpses into the mind of,” sold—admittedly with a wink—as “journalism.”
It debuted Oct. 1, a few days after Jeter’s final major league game. The first piece was from “founding publisher Derek Jeter” with the headline “The Start of Something New.” In true Jeterian fashion, there are no clear answers at all, just promises of answers to come and vague assurances of greatness on deck. With each entry, there’s the disclosure of random details that either don’t mean anything or have been doled out before but are repackaged out to feel like big revelations. “Derek Jeter” admits to being guarded! “Blake Griffin” says Donald Sterling was like a weird uncle! “Danica Patrick” opens up about children!
All of this should feel familiar, because it is. The marketing machine behind The Players’ Tribune will say it’s part of the digital revolution, allowing athletes to speak directly to the fans without pesky media misinterpretation. But it’s hard to not notice the similarities between the site and the glossy magazines that line grocery store checkouts with promises of honest glimpses inside celebrity lives. You can read about “Derek Jeter” in what The Players’ Tribune claims are his own words, or go to the local Albertsons and read People’s Taylor Swift story this week. (The headline? “In her own words.”) Celebrity trash mags have been taking meaningless details from entertainment stars and repackaging them as news for decades. Chris Pratt cleans his own car! Emma Stone is a horrible liar! Lady Gaga’s boyfriend cries when she sings! And fans love it.
“Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” is pretty obviously the next step in sports media. The only question is why it took athletes so long to figure out they could do it, and do it on their own terms.
What exactly have we learned from the opening salvos of The Players’ Tribune? What deep, dark secrets are these great athletes finally empowered to reveal now that the burden of dealing with reporters is removed? The first post, from “Derek Jeter,” opens with the expected platitudes about how great New York fans are, how great baseball fans are, and how grateful he is. It then turns from the usual platitudes to the usual Jeter routine of speaking while saying nothing.
I do think fans deserve more than “no comments” or “I don’t knows.” 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. Many of you saw me after that final home game, when the enormity of the moment hit me. I’m not a robot. Neither are the other athletes who at times might seem unapproachable. We all have emotions. We just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend.
Great, except at no point in the piece does “Derek Jeter” say what’s on his mind. There is no first-person story; there are no behind-the-scenes details. He is, instead, during the only truly Jeter thing there is to do—selling a product. (Himself, in this case.) The only thing missing from his sales pitch is a button advertising T-shirts for $39.99, plus shipping and handling.
Next up, “Russell Wilson,” who opens with a meaningless confession that he used to beat people up. He doesn’t say where or when or who they were or provide any details. Did he send someone to the hospital or just give another boy a nasty bruise? It is only as bad as you picture it in your mind, which is the point. Next comes his pitch.
As NFL players, we do not play a gentle game. But our hits, our anger, our aggressive behaviors need to be regulated and confined to the field. Recent incidents of domestic violence have forced The League, its fans and the players to take a hard look into our collective conscience. To be honest, many NFL players are reluctant to address such a sensitive issue. How do you fix a problem so big and complex? How do you speak about something so damaging and painful to families?
With money! “Russell Wilson” then asks everyone to donate $2 to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the same hotline that the NFL has said it will fund. (Note that TMZ has reported that the money hasn’t come in yet.) This tells readers nothing about “Russell Wilson” other than that he’s just another loyal Roger Goodell foot solider.
The site finally introduced a woman, “Danica Patrick,” who gets reduced to the tropes of “girl talking about her relationship” and “working woman with worries.” How will she handle dating another driver? How does she define her relationship status? Is she thinking about children? And can she please plug her dog’s Twitter account?
Everyone deserves to be happy. You don’t get to choose what truly makes you happy, and we’re not the first couple to navigate the workplace romance waters. We constantly have our families around. Both will be at the race this weekend. Now we have a dog (with her own Twitter account @DallasStenhouse) and it makes me think about the question of children, so that’s a decision for us to consider in our future. This is stuff that I didn’t entertain before I was with him and it’s a big part of my life now. It’s a question that every ambitious, working woman has to grapple with.
But more than anything, being happy makes me a better race car driver.
All that’s missing is the PowerPoint presentation pitching this as a Kate Hudson rom-com vehicle for summer 2016.
The latest edition, out today, is from “Blake Griffin.” It opens with an interesting anecdote—a first-person account of a Donald Sterling “White Party” in Malibu where the former Clippers owner paraded Griffin around like a child. He also talks about researching Sterling after the draft and discovering his new boss’s history of racism, then pushing it aside to play for the Clippers. It seems like a bold story to tell; of course, Griffin already told it to GQ, too.
“Blake” continues, and does provide some good insight into what it was like to hear the notorious Sterling tapes and suddenly get bombarded with questions about a crazy owner whose antics had, for decades, been ignored. The piece is mildly enjoyable in its way, like an as-told-to in a game guide you’d read when bored at the game or in line for a beer. But this isn’t about insight, it’s about self-serving, and at some point it has to get around to doing what the media won’t do for “Blake Griffin”: kissing his new boss’s ass.
Steve Ballmer was pretty excited at the first fan rally after he took over the team. He was jumping around, high-fiving fans, giving us chest bumps. The media and the Internet ran with this. They tried to turn him into a joke. Ballmer was everywhere. People cut up his speech into a montage and put it on YouTube.
All the players thought it was awesome. Personally, I love that kind of crazy. Ballmer wants to win no matter the cost. Donald Sterling didn’t care if we won—at least if it meant he had to spend money. It wasn’t just about spending money on players. For years, our training staff wanted to buy this sophisticated computer software that would let them scan our bodies and keep track of our progress throughout the season. Sterling wouldn’t sign off on it.
When I walked into the training facility for the first time this summer, the entire vibe was different. People were smiling. From the security people to the game operations staff to the office staff, everybody seemed happy to be there. For the first time ever, they were on permanent contracts. Under Sterling, all the staff were on temporary contracts. Top to bottom, everybody just appreciates being appreciated now.
When I walked into the trainer’s room, the staff was going crazy. They showed me the new body scanning software. Ballmer signed off on it Day 1.
It’s little bit ironic to me that the media has tried to turn Ballmer into a meme when they turned a blind eye to Sterling for years. Steve is a good dude. He’s like a cool dad who gives you candy. Donald was like a weird uncle.
Sterling is bad, Ballmer is good. Thanks for the insight, “Blake.”
Teams and athletes have been playing subtraction by addition game for years, adding press conferences, media updates, and social media while cutting off any meaningful point of access where the narrative can’t be controlled. Players and coaches fill their availabilities with generic answers—or, if you’re Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich, no answers at all—and that never stops most media from covering them as if breaking news is happening. Teams and athletes instead break news on Twitter, where you can ask a brand all the questions you want and it will never have to answer back. The top athletes already have a phalanx of publicists, marketing specialists, and fixers ensuring their Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and canned press statements are pitch-perfect. Why not expand the spin party to longer pieces of writing?
Like any celebrity event, The Players’ Tribune teases future events that, like most Hollywood news, will never live up to the hype in each fan’s head. Those involved have fancy titles for jobs they probably don’t do, instead farming them out to underlings. The Players’ Tribune wants you to believe Russell Wilson is doing the work of a senior editor during an NFL season when his team is a Super Bowl contender while Danica Patrick also is a senior editor during her second full-time NASCAR season and Blake Griffin is senior editing as the NBA season nears.
None of it makes sense, and yet none of that matters so long as the press releases get lapped up—which they do. The Players’ Tribune already has more than 38,000 Twitter followers, more than 27,000 Facebook likes, and the press releases from “Derek Jeter,” “Russell Wilson,” and “Danica Patrick” got plenty of press and adulation. “Blake Griffin” reiterated a story he has already told and it still got picked up and treated like breaking news. The Internet must be filled, and it only makes sense for athletes to seize on that and do it, on their own terms. Athletes—they’re just like us! But please don’t ask them any questions.
Image via Shutterstock