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The Players’ Tribune: The ‘Regular’ Athlete & ‘Real’ Sports Journalism

The Players' Tribune doesn't say explicitly that it employs ghost writers to pen stories based on player interviews, is that lie by omission a problem?

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Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

About a month or so ago, I eagerly read Brandon Prust’s account of being an NHL enforcer in The Players’ Tribune (TPT). It’s arguably a taboo topic, and the sociologist in me was especially glued to his description of his own loyalty to the ‘code,’ the much-mentioned, and often maligned, set of informal hockey community norms that many say provides guidance on the fighter’s obligation to engage another in a scrap.

A few weeks later, I actually felt pangs of guilt as I concluded Scott Gomezdescription of how, in the midst of his horrendously bad play, the constant abuse he took from Montreal Canadiens fans like me led him to struggle to feel good about himself and to temporarily lose the passion that pushed him to become an NHL player.

And, most recently, I was riveted to David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz’s spirited, almost aggressive, tale of how his accomplishments as a big league baseball player, one whose discipline and focus allowed him to rise up from the poverty and violence of his childhood in the Dominican Republic, will seemingly always be challenged by those asserting that his homerun hitting has been facilitated by the use of performance enhancing drugs.

In our commercial sports culture, one in which distinctions between sports reporting, corporate marketing of athletes, and team public relations campaigns are increasingly blurred, these first-person descriptions, all published in TPT, have been refreshing. In their candour and depth, players opening up on their human emotions and work dynamics appeared to contrast mightily with the hyper-mediated and thematically truncated formats in which stories about them are normally delivered. It seemed as though TPT and its athlete contributors were doing something far more interesting than traditional sports media platforms.

But, then I read something by Awful Announcing’s Andrew Buchholtz that burst my bubble. In his piece, Bucholtz explains how TPT, the brainchild of former Major League Baseball star Derek Jeter, employs ghostwriters who interview athletes and then write the accounts of their stories that appear on the site. Rather than reading narratives put together by players themselves, TPT audiences have been consuming content that’s been told to, and worked up by, professional writers who aren’t getting credited with their role in the process.

Bucholtz points out that TPT isn’t the only sports outlet to do this, and he notes that Sports Illustrated employed the same technique in its online exclusive on Jason Collins that was promoted, and widely received, as a basketball player’s personal description of coming-out as gay in the NBA. Yet, as a publication promising to ‘bring fans closer to the game they love than ever before’ by delivering ‘first-person stories directly from athletes,’ questions invariably arise about TPT.

By relying on professional writers to craft the athletes’ published stories, even if the editing is minimal, is the authenticity of TPT content somewhat tarnished? Does it matter to fan-readers if the lucidity of the written narratives, though built entirely out of players’ own accounting of the events, is not actually the product of the players themselves? What does knowledge of the reality of constructed first-person content say about TPT and its relationship to traditional sports media?

Starting with the notion of authenticity, where is it in media or pop culture content today? We’ve been watching reality TV for years, and we know that it’s not so very real. We follow high-profile figures on Twitter, and we learn all the time that it’s neither our favourite celebrities nor our most respected politicians who are actually writing the updates we read about their social lives, cats, and social policies. And, while athletes’ tweets have been demonstrated to be regrettably candid and real, between regular cases of underreporting, and the occasional shockers, sports media has fielded questions about the fullness of its reality and authenticity as well. TPT is just a newer example.

So, our daily media-pop culture content, including sports, is full of gaps between events/people, accounts of those events/people, and the authorship and/or telling of those accounts. Do pop culture consumers and sports fans even care?

Whether it’s cheering on an improbable underdog on her way to winning a reality TV cooking competition in which situations are manipulated for dramatic effect, following celebrity Twitter fights that are most certainly staged, or sharing a video of a Montreal Canadiens star trolling fans of the Boston Bruins by getting paid to help a corporation sell a hamburger, pop culture consumers and sports fans today are accustomed to, and clearly enjoy, the blurring of the line between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘illustration.’ In a culture in which the fake fails to draws our outrage as it did a generation before, Brandon Prust, as told to an invisible ghostwriter, isn’t a surprise. And, it simply isn’t a big a deal for most sports fans either.

Yet, even if there’s little negative response to news that athletes don’t write their own stories because we all basically expect it to be that way anyway, TPT still yields some uncomfortable insights into sports media, and about its readers, today.

The complaint has been duly raised that, by not subjecting them to the types of questions that a professional sports journalist would, TPT lets athletes use its platform to present mostly positive views of themselves. And, in having ghostwriters help the players produce stories that mostly highlight their emotions and psychological states, TPT has been celebrating athletes as ‘regular’ guys and gals, albeit guys and gals who experience universally shared emotions and psychological reactions while doing extraordinary things. The red flag isn’t that the ghostwriters aren’t capturing the real emotions and the real psychology of the athletes. It’s that storytelling in TPT is a collaboratively self-policed process that, in the interest of optimizing athlete control over their images, limits the scale of subjects that the ghostwriters and athletes talk and write about.

So, in the process of generating content, will a ghostwriter-athlete partnership result in Brandon Prust grappling with questions about the relationship between fighting, brain damage, and the NHL’s responsibility? Will it encourage Scott Gomez to elaborate on the widely held belief that he and his teammates very selectively accepted and applied coach Jacques Martin’s system? Or, will it push David Ortiz to justify why the raw emotions attached to his personal story are more deserving of empathy than those experienced by A-Rod? The ghostwriters and the athletes have free reign, but we know that the stories they jointly generate are unlikely to violate the boundaries of cultural and corporate friendliness.

As legitimate as this concern is, it also fully depends upon the notion that there’s a clear distinction between the critically revealing reporting of the traditional sports journalists and the fluff content that’s likely to be put out in other, non-professional, sports sources. But, as we clearly know from current discussions in hard news and media criticism, and of course from our very own hockey blogger community, the pro-amateur distinction isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

Professional sports reporters may very well be able to add important facts and context to Big Papi’s TPT story, but, in terms of depth and critical approach, are ghostwritten athlete stories and traditional sports journalists routinely delivering fundamentally diverging investigations and reporting on athletes and sports? Today in sports, TMZ and Deadspin are first to the story, sports reporters openly lament restrictions on their access, and comedians can play more of a role in helping us get closer to the ‘truth’ about important issues in sports than professional sports reporters. There are notable and Canadian-based exceptions, but in a context like this, I’m not always so sure.

The most troubling part of TPT then isn’t learning that the player accounts aren’t real, and it’s also not that the platform allows athletes to set the agenda of what they tell the fans. The problem is that TPT’s writer-subject working relationship, one that limits storytelling to describing the culturally comfortable possibility that high profile and wealthy athletes feel and think like you and me, might not actually deviate all that much from today’s professional sports reporting.

Created and overseen by a former player who tops the charts when it comes to image control, The Players’ Tribune is now an open-book case of how contemporary media, both traditional and new, may actually shield its users from the complexities of what’s going on. And, even with our knowledge of how the whole thing works, we, the fans, don’t seem to mind participating in the process all that much at all.