Marshawn Lynch, Russell Westbrook, and The Player’s Tribune: The future of sports media

Throughout the NFL season, Marshawn Lynch has made headlines for his relationship with the media. Sometimes aloof, sometimes dodgy, and sometimes just plain absent, Lynch has made it clear that he has no interest in giving reporters a quote after the Seahawks play on Sunday.

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Last week, Russell Westbrook did his own Marshawn Lynch impression, repeating, “we executed well,” or “good execution” as a response to every answer asked of the Thunder point guard. He went as far as telling one reporter that he didn’t like him, and was clearly agitated the entire interview.

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Before his retirement this fall, Derek Jeter was infamous for his outstanding relationship with the media, seemingly always having the perfect stock answer to maintain his humble persona, and promote the idea of Jeter as one of the game’s last true competitors in an era of selfish athletes.

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How are these three guys related? Well, Lynch and Westbrook would seem to be in the same boat, but it’s really Jeter who may be the most interconnected with the two. When Jeter retired, he launched The Player’s Tribune. The site’s masthead hails the site as, “a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes, bringing fans closer to the games they love than ever before… The Player’s Tribune aims to provide unique insight into the daily sports conversation and to publish first-person stories directly from athletes.”

The site’s mission is pretty clear: let’s cut out the middleman i.e. the media.

As a 24-year old who just quit his job teaching, and moved halfway across the country to pursue a job in sports media, one might think this is a bit disturbing for me.

And it is to a certain extent.

However, to a certain extent, I can empathize.

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Let’s go back to Jeter as a player for a minute. Jeter, although practically deified in the New York media, infamously would never give the reporters anything to really work with. He gave the perfect answer to every question, but the perfect stock answer to every question. The New York newspapers, which thrive on Lynch and Westbrook types, loved Jeter as a player, but in terms of giving them a juicy, “our manager needs to go,” or “this teammate is hurting the team” type answers, he simply went with the stock answer.

That was no mistake. As part of the launch of The Player’s Tribune, Jeter commented on how much effort he put in to “saying nothing.” He knew the media could twist his words if he gave them even anything close to an interesting quote, so he avoided those quote like the plague.

With his, “new media platform,” Jeter is hoping that athletes will be able to truly say what they want without getting any part of their quotes twisted and used against them. It’s a very understandable for Jeter and certain athletes to worry about this, ESPN is purely magical at doing this exact thing to get more clicks on their website.

With modern social media as it is, there may not really be a need to even have these crowded locker room post-game interviews anymore; at least not in their current state.

With teams nowadays having so(oooooo) many different outlets that cover their team (just look at the Super Bowl media day, for god’s sake), modern athletes would be hard-pressed not to be a bit overwhelmed by all this.

If I had to answer questions from 12-15 people every day, right after work, I’m sure there would be times I’d be really sick of it. Granted, these athletes make approximately a billion times more than I do, and they signed a contract agreeing to meet with the press after the game, but if there’s a better way to do it, why not do so?

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That’s where Jeter and The Player’s Tribune come back into the picture. I’m not sure Jeter has entirely perfected the idea, but I think he might be on the right track. One of the first criticisms, or maybe more accurately, observations, about The Player’s Tribune when it launched was that it seemed pretty clear that a lot of these players were having their stories ghost-written for them. While that ghostwriting led to the site getting some guff, it actually may be a step in the right direction towards a compromise from the players and the media.

Why not have one or two media members, who the player gets to know and trust, conduct each post-game interview?

With the way social media is now, all the other beat reporters could easily send their questions via Twitter into the one reporter interviewing the player, as basically an instantaneous response. The onus would still be on the outgoing news outlet to not twist the player’s words, but if the player was being interviewed by a reporter who he trusts, we, as sports’ fans, might actually get an interesting, in-depth answer every once and a while.

Back when the post-game interview was established, reporters all had to be in the locker room in person to get their quote, because otherwise their news outlet would miss out entirely on any quotes. With email and Twitter etc. there’s no way any reporter could complain about a delay in their story, as they could incorporate their quotes basically in live time.

Reporters might feel that this is taking away a chunk of their responsibilities, but instead, it’s simply using technology to their advantage. Modern reporters face a lot more pressure in other aspects of their job, as news is now a second-by-second affair, instead of the day-by-day affair it used to be. Sports reporters are also expected to be better versed with statistical knowledge of their sport than ever before, and lots of the best sports writing doesn’t even include quotes from players anymore.

In fact, most fans of my generation have learned to basically skip over what the player says in the game recap because it is so frequently a stock answer. Getting the players to trust their sources once again, and opening the door for the players to give a better look behind the curtain (one of the driving ideas behind The Player’s Tribune) would be an awesome addition to any sports fans daily reading.

Yes, it’s a bit scary to think that the future of sports media is looking to cut out the middleman. However, here’s the thing: As has been noted, those athletes are not writing their own pieces for The Player’s Tribune. The job of a beat reporter isn’t going to die off just because they can’t go into the locker room and have Player X tell them, “both teams competed hard tonight, but I think we were more focused and motivated.” Honestly, with the way it is now, reporters could simply create a cheat sheet stock answer guide, close their eyes, and point to one of the answers and probably not be far off what the athlete said in response to their question.

There’s a lot more to sports writing than getting quotes, and many of the generation’s best sports writers have discovered that. Usually the best answers come in a one-on-one setting with the player, the exact setting I would recommend the future of sports writing look towards.

Change never comes easy, and I’m sure there are some solid arguments against that I simply haven’t thought of (when I brought it up with a sports writing buddy over the weekend, he seemed to disagree strongly), but I think it’s something that should definitely be considered.

Watching Marshawn Lynch, an undeniably shy guy, having to do the part of his job he almost certainly hates most week-in and week-out is painful, and just totally unnecessary.

Even if you think Lynch should suck it up, we all have parts of our job we hate (why hello, transcribing), it seems undeniable that a more comfortable athlete would lead to a more open athlete, which would lead to more interesting comments after the game.

The Player’s Tribune isn’t quite there. They need admit there are ghost-writers and give them their credit, and it may not be as live, up-to-the-minute as it needs to be, but it just may be that Derek Jeter, the man who gave all those perfect interviews in front of hoards of New York reporters, is finally the man who kills the hoards.

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