One of my first assignments as an intern at the New York Daily News was to cover a New York Yankees game. Before I started, I had no idea what type of access would be available. It was a great surprise to learn that baseball reporters got access to the locker room before and after each game.
So on I went on my first day of the job, wearing my credential over my head with a Michigan lanyard. I walked into the locker room and Mark Feinsand, the Daily News’ Yankees beat writer, noticed my lanyard and immediately wanted to introduce me to Derek Jeter, one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Jeter had committed to play to Michigan before being drafted by the Yankees in 1994. So Mark walked me over to meet Derek, and before I could say anything Derek said, “Hey bud, I’m Derek Jeter. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands, made some small talk about Michigan. That ended up being the only time I talked to Derek Jeter the whole summer. Reporters don’t bother talking to Jeter. He simply says nothing newsworthy, a strategy that kept him out of trouble.
Unfortunately for myself, many players shared Jeter’s sentiment. Here is an audio recording of an interview I conducted with New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, who was named the 2014 National League Rookie of the Year. The interview below was conducted well before deGrom reached the national radar. But he still had to approve my interview and answered questions in a very robotic manner.
Jeter’s unwillingness to say anything newsworthy to reporters is exactly why it’s not surprising to see him create The Players’ Tribune, a website devoted to giving professional athletes a new media platform where they can produce first-person stories. This way, players don’t have to rely on media professionals to tell their stories and, instead, they can just tell it themselves. Derek Jeter wrote in an original piece titled, “The Start of Something New:”
“I realize I’ve been guarded. I learned early on in New York, the toughest media environment in sports, that just because a reporter asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer. I attribute much of my success in New York to my ability to understand and avoid unnecessary distractions.”
The funniest part of Jeter’s comments is that he goes on to write that this type of behavior is not fair to the millions of baseball fans around the world. He wrote:
“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.”
So to combat the “no comments,” Jeter created the Tribune and its blown up since its start date over six months ago back on Oct 1. The site has nearly 70,000 followers on Twitter, and is publishing content daily.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for athletes to communicate,” Jaymee Messler, the President of The Players’ Tribune, told The New York Times. “At the core of this is to make sure athletes have a stress-free way to offer their perspectives. It’s a different conversation when you set the agenda with your story.”
Certain pieces on the site stand out more than others. Tiger Woods “wrote” a piece explaining how one reporter completely misrepresented who he is. Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin “wrote” a thoughtful piece, explaining his odd relationship with estranged ex-owner Donald Sterling. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson “wrote” a piece about being a bully when he was younger. I put the word “wrote” in quotation marks because the players don’t actually write the pieces themselves, and I will highlight that later on the essay through a New York Times article, interview with Players’ Tribune President Jaymee Messmer, quoted above, and with John Harper, a baseball columnist for the Daily News, who explains why this might be a problem.
There are two pieces I will go into detail in this post. First, I will highlight a story by Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, who underwent Tommy John Surgery, missing a full season, after it appeared he would become the Big Apple’s next star since … Derek Jeter. Harvey detailed a trip he took Laos, and the piece came across as incredibly riveting. I will also detail Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz’s piece on steroid allegations.
In his story, Harvey wrote about how he took long walks in Laos, where he was unknown to every person on the streets. It allowed him to clear his mind, as Harvey said, “I had never had an injury. Never missed a game. It was going to be the first time in my adult life that I wasn’t able to throw a baseball for four straight months.” He added, “As an athlete, being on the sidelines makes you feel useless. I felt helpless because I wanted to contribute. An injury makes you invisible.” These quotes are phenomenal.
Any sports journalist would love to have these quotes. And I can assure you that many reporters were quietly angry that Harvey wouldn’t share the details of his trip with them before writing this piece.
“A lot of times, especially in New York, you can read stuff or hear things that aren’t necessarily true,” Harvey told The New York Times. “So for me to have an outlet where it’s first person and it’s true — everything is from me — it’s something I was really excited about.”
One journalist who covers Harvey on a day-to-day basis is New York Mets beat writer Kristie Ackert. Kristie was nice enough to take time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions about the Tribune via email. It was very brief, but speaks to how a journalist might view the Players’ Tribune.
Jason: As a beat writer, do you like the idea of the Players Tribune?
Kristie: I don’t really follow the Players Tribune much, only read the Harvey story. Waiting to see what develops .
Jason: Do you feel athletes are misquoted as often as Derek Jeter implied in his opening story?
Jason: How did you feel about Matt Harvey publishing a piece on the sit, rather than allowing a reporter who covers him every day, like you, to write the feature?
Kristie was understandably brief. Even if she wanted to say something more about Harvey’s piece, she couldn’t in this interview because if Harvey saw this post, he wouldn’t speak to her anymore — a reporter’s worst nightmare.
John Harper, a colleague of Kristie’s, and a columnist at the Daily News since 1994, took a similar approach to Kristie, but explained that Harvey may have been in better hands if he chose to allow a reporter to write his story, rather than a ghost writer. Harper also discussed how it’s funny that Jeter created this site after not allowing reporters into his head for his career, the site’s potential and if it’s good or bad for the industry. Listen below!
David Ortiz is one of the most prolific baseball players of my generation, hitting 446 home runs to date. In today’s steroid age, power like Ortiz’s is always questioned. Ortiz has never actually been proven guilty of using banned substances, but has been a victim of constant speculation. He took to the Players’ Tribune to address these concerns. In his story, he calls out a reporter, who he describes as “the reporter with the red jheri curl from the Boston Globe.’’ That description fits Dan Shaugnessy, a well-respected, in most cases, Boston Globe columnist.
While it appeared that Ortiz got his point across, explaining why he is innocent and how Shaugnessy was in irresponsible with his reporting, his plan backfired. Shaugnessy eviscerated Ortiz in a column responding to Ortiz’s claims.
“I’m writing because I can’t figure out why you felt the need to reintroduce the topic of steroids and drug testing in your recent essay on Derek Jeter’s Players Tribune website,” Shaugnessy wrote. “It feels like a mistake. Better to leave it alone and stay in a world where everyone loves you unconditionally. Jeter failed you on this one. A good editor would have discouraged this theme.”
Shaugnessy went on to nitpick each claim Ortiz makes in his story, exposing some factually incorrect details.
“You write, ‘I never knowingly took any steroids.’ This is not good phrasing,” Shaugnessy wrote. “This is the old Barry Bonds defense. That word “knowingly” is a crusher. You are a professional athlete. It’s up to you to know what you are taking. Don’t use the ignorance defense.
“You write, ‘Nobody in MLB history has been tested for PEDs more than me. You know how many times I’ve been tested since 2004? More than 80.’
“Hmmm. In your never-ending paranoia and posturing that you are being unfairly singled out, you may have goofed on this one. Eighty tests since 2004 is highly unlikely. According to NBC Sports, the only way a player could be subjected to that many tests would be if he was “in the program” possibly because of a (non-suspendable) positive test for amphetamines.”
This above example is exactly how writing for the Tribune could backfire. Ortiz thought he was “writing” a thoughtful essay, but it resulted in him looking more like a cheater, and Shaugnessy and many other media outlets, alike, exposed the incorrect details in his post.
However, the most troubling part of The Players’ Tribune was recently exposed by Richard Sandomir, a New York Times media columnist. Sandomir detailed the inner workings of the Tribune and exposed that the true byline should not belong to the athletes. Harper also noted this problem in the above interview.
“Like nearly every post on the site, the Ortiz essay was not written directly by its bylined athlete but instead crafted from a recorded interview with a Tribune staff producer,” Sandomir wrote. “(Players’ Tribune editorial director Gary) Hoenig said these interviews are less traditional question-and-answer sessions than monologues with questions to nudge the conversation along. Editing is minimal, he added, and the athletes get the final approval. The staff producers who talk to them do not get bylines.”
So these athletes are ultimately taking credit for a story they did not write — that seems unethical, no? More notably, The Players’ Tribune editing process doesn’t seem to be complete.
“We do standard fact-checking,” Hoenig told Sandomir. Messler confirmed that in my interview that is below.
And in regards to Ortiz’s story, the one in which Shuagnessy clearly outlined factually incorrect statements, Hoenig said, “We knew the entire history of steroid testing in baseball. We knew how he’d been exposed in anonymous testing. We couldn’t verify the number of tests that he said he’s taken, but it was verified by his agent that he’d been tested frequently. Baseball would never tell us.”
So the truth may not be getting true in these stories. Players may fudge facts that these ghostwriters would just assume to be true. These ghostwriters, as Harper mentioned, wouldn’t question these players like a normal journalist would.
On the Boomer and Carton radio show, one of the most listened to radio shows in the country, Boomer and Carton shed light on this problem.
Katie Nolan, an American sports personality and television host on Fox Sports 1, also had some negative words toward the Tribune in this satirical clip.
It’s evident that Sandomir’s article raised some eyebrows about the site. It’s taken a lot media flack, as evident by those two radio shows. Some of it’s pieces are not having their intended effect, like Ortiz’s. And once the general public understands that the authors of these stories aren’t the players themselves, the site’s credibility will be instantly lowered. To respond to these claims and to explain the Players’ Tribune side of things, Jaymee Messler, President of The Players’ Tribune, was kind enough to talk to me.
In an exclusive interview, Messler shed light upon the Tribune’s writing process, editing process, how the ghost writers do their stories and about Matt Harvey’s role. Listen below!
As noted in the interview, The Players’ Tribune has broken some news lately, scaring some media outlets. Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello recently broke via the website that he had signed an extension with the Sox. Brady Aiken, the first pick of the 2014 MLB draft, broke via the website that he had tommy john surgery. This has some journalists worried.
“Hopefully it’s not another way to put newspapers out of business,” Harper said in the above interview.
Luckily for Harper and others, it doesn’t appear the reason for newspapers’ decline is The Players’ Tribune. There are simply too much unknown with how the site will grow. Couple that with people finding out that the players don’t actually write their own story, and I think the site’s growth will plateau. Most notably, Messler said a very troubling thing in the interview.
“Athletes haven’t had this opportunity before,” she said. “It’s easier for them when they can set the agenda.”
Obviously, it’s easier for athletes when they set their own agenda. But why should the athletes set their own agenda? That seems fishy to me — how does a reader know the truth is coming through?
They don’t, and that is a massive problem for The Players’ Tribune.