What happens when athletes just tell their own stories?

When Kevin Durant announced he was leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, he didn’t do so via a press conference or ESPN or the Golden State Warriors.Durant worked out what he wanted to say and then published it in a first-person article on The Players’ Tribune. And he’s just one of a growing number of athletes who’ve decided that the best way to tell their personal stories is… personally.

Derek Jeter

The Players’ Tribune was started by baseball superstar Derek Jeter, who won five World Series titles as a shortstop with the New York Yankees. He retired as the leading all-time hitter in Yankees history.

But Jeter says he noticed more and more athletes having to be very careful what they said around traditional media, with reporters looking for headlines and athletes worried about someone twisting their words. So, back in 2014, he got together with a couple of dozen other athletes to tell their stories directly (or with the help of in-house writers) through The Players’ Tribune. Many outsiders doubted how well the platform would do, but that uncertainty has subsided.

Over 1,500 athletes have now contributed articles to The Players’ Tribune and, at the start of this year, the company announced that it had raised US$40 million in a new round of funding. Among those who have invested are some of sports biggest names – including Kobe Bryant and Durant.

The rise of athlete-driven stories has been one of the biggest changes in the athlete/media landscape in the last few years, with numerous other start-ups entering the space. Among the most prominent are LeBron James’ Uninterrupted (best known for hosting first-person videos posted by pro athletes), ACE Media (which is owned by the NFL Players’ Association) and Unscriptd (started by ex-Nike execs, with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf among its investors).

Sally Fitzgibbon

In Australia, these developments haven’t gone unnoticed with PlayersVoice (whose founding contributors include rugby player Israel Folou and surfer Sally Fitzgibbon) and Exclusive Insight (which AFL star Gary Ablett Jr is behind) among those entering the fray

The rise of these platforms has led to many rich stories being told, partly because of the confidence the athletes have to speak in these circumstances. As the NFL’s Richard Sherman says: “I don’t have to worry about one sentence of a larger interview being used as a headline.”And it sounds like that concern is ringing true in Australia, where PlayersVoice states that it has observed three major trends:

  • Dissatisfaction with the negativity of coverage in some traditional media outlets
  • Social media is too shallow a channel for sportspeople to truly engage with fans
  • A global re-balancing of power in sport with a shift towards the actual product – sportspeople

Gary Ablett Jr goes further and talks about Exclusive Insight wanting to cut through the clutter in an era where “clickbait”, plus “sensational” and “misleading” headlines, are “tarnishing the manner in how athletes and entertainers are having their stories told.”So, it sounds like a correction of sorts is at play in the athlete/media landscape. But hopefully it doesn’t go too far. One of the key roles of the media is to ask the tough questions – or, more accurately, to extract the fascinating answers – which bring us more deeply into contact with each other. And one-sided conversations, with athletes avoiding contentious territory, can be unhealthy for everyone.

Patrick O'Sullivan

Fortunately, the athlete-driven sites have been delivering stories that may not have been told otherwise. A couple of the more powerful articles on The Players’ Tribune, for example, are Patrick O’Sullivan’s account of the beatings his father gave him as a junior ice hockey player (‘Black & Blue’) and the NFL’s DeAndre Levy discussing male attitudes to rape, sexual assault and masculinity (‘Man up’).

So, there’s plenty to admire about this relatively new media development. But there are also plenty of reasons to want to ensure a healthy mainstream media in the sports market – which is what Unscriptd’s Andre Agassi is advocating.

"This is not to fly in the face of the sports media," Agassi says.

"Done right, we'll augment each other."


Caley Wilson writes about entertainment and sport. He is a former media manager of New Zealand Rugby League and netball's Northern Mystics and has worked on festivals from Rhythm & Vines to the Big Day Out. He is a co-founder of Blinder.

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