The MMQB. Sports Illustrated. The Players Tribune. The Cauldron.
Aside from their common sports thread, what do these outlets have in common?
They are giving athletes a voice through their own words.
Having Their Say: Ali
This isn’t a new phenomenon – athletes having their own say. Athletes in their own words. Athletes have had their say for decades, either through newspaper, radio, or television interviews. When I think of athletes having their say, I think of Muhammad Ali. Love him or hate him, Ali was outspoken and unafraid to speak his mind.
I can remember some of the old Muhammad Ali-Howard Cosell interviews. They were classics. Sometimes, it was hard to figure out if it was just all a show by two showmen. But, in my child mind, Ali would always outshine Cosell. Ali shined like only he could. They were his words. One only needed to watch his post-fight interviews like this one:
But, it wasn’t that way for every athlete.
Much of what we as fans saw was controlled by the media. Editing an interview to only provide us with a few quotes in a news or magazine article. Taking a single quote and making it into a story. Leaving key athlete quotes on the cutting room floor. That’s how we fans came to “hear” from athletes throughout the years.
Today, there is social media.
Controlling the Message
The athlete-media relationship has always been a tricky one. They’ve needed each other. Media needed athlete quotes for stories. Athletes needed media to help them be “recognized” (think: sponsors). Getting quotes, especially post-game quotes after a loss, from a surly athlete wasn’t always pleasant. Having to deal with media members who didn’t like you wasn’t exactly a high point of an athlete’s day either. The dreaded “I was misquoted” became a staple in the athlete-media relationship.
But, they needed each other.
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Then along came social media. Social media has become an outlet for athletes to use to have their voice heard. Their voice. Not filtered through the media. Their voice.
A bad play on the field? An athlete could take to Twitter post-game to share their side of the story. Or, to even apologize to fans. Retirement or off-field issues? No character limit on Facebook. Bypass the standard email press release route – go to where fans are. They control the message.
For a fan, there is something powerful in hearing from an athlete directly. Dr. Jimmy Sanderson, Assistant Professor at Clemson University, researches and teaches on the growing dynamic that is athletes on social media. “One of the biggest capabilities that social media offers athletes is that they have the ability to introduce counter-narratives if they object to the way they are being covered, or simply want to put their own spin on it,” says Dr. Sanderson. “Social media enables them to do this without any filtering from PR officials (which is why teams sometimes cringe) but it does give an authentic viewpoint right to fans.”
It’s About Information
Fans crave information on their favorite teams and athletes. Any bit of information, true or potentially true, fans want to know about it. If it affects their team, it affects them. They don’t want to be left out in the dark. Fans want to know what’s happening…and they want it now.
Twitter is the best resource for that information. Sports journalists have embraced the platform as part of their daily routine. Tweeting play-by-play, commentary, story links, quotes, press conferences and interviews, Twitter has empowered them (think: personal branding) like never before. Without them, fans might not have taken to the platform at all.
But, athletes have seen that empowerment too (again, think: personal branding). They see the instant connection Twitter and other platforms provide. Bypassing traditional media, social media lets athletes give information fans want, but in an athlete’s time. “Social media has been a tremendous asset to athletes and helped fans see that they are more diverse than just what they do on the field or court,” said Dr. Sanderson.
It’s Nothing New
Even if athletes want to go beyond-140, social media may not be the ideal route. Using their own website to share news is in their best interests from a branding standpoint. It drives people to their website. As journalists today well know, it’s about clicks and views. The more clicks-and-views, the more attractive a site is to advertisers.
Not every athlete has the time or the people to run a site. Sports Illustrated, The Cauldron and the rest are high-traffic sites. Utilizing one of these sites can give an athlete high, instant impact to what they have to say. And, relatively unfiltered.
Fans have received filtered information on athletes for as long as sports and media have been around. But, fans have also received first-person athlete accounts too. According to John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball, some form of first-person article has been around since the 1800’s. “Both newspaper/magazine articles and books were ghosted for athletes as early as the 1870’s,” said Thorn.”
Thorn cited Cap Anson’s A Ball Player’s Career (1900) as the first “active or former player” to write his own book. As for newspapers, Thorn says when their playing days were over, some players took to writing careers in retirement. Players like Tim Murnane and Sam Crane (1870’s, 1880’s) became sportswriters. “Who was the very first baseball player to have his words appear in a newspaper? I think that must have been William H. Van Cott, in 1854 (ourgame.mlblog.com),” says Thorn.
Now and In The Future
The athlete-media relationship is a constantly evolving dynamic. One reason? “Media and communication technology have had a significant impact on sport,” says Dr. Sanderson. As technology advances, more opportunities arise for athletes to take control of their message.
Will it be through websites like The Players Tribune? Video? Whatever it is, long-form writing by athltes will be part of the equation. For now, expect to see more athletes writing their own stories. Recent stories like these:
- Jason Collins made news in 2013 when he came out in a Sports Illustrated article…in his own words.
- In October 2014, now-retired New York Yankee short stop, Derek Jeter, launched The Players Tribune, an athlete-driven content platfrom. First up? Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson.
Founding Publisher Derek Jeter introduces http://t.co/ryFy13oZqo pic.twitter.com/5Mn9OM3fEg
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) October 1, 2014
- A more recent The Cauldron article from DeAngelo Williams caught my attention. Williams, in his own words, spoke to athletes about their social media habits.
- The Arizona Cardinals’ Darnell Dockett recently took the NFL to task over health and contracts on The MMQB.