Earlier this month, just before the N.B.A. trade deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers offloaded their point guard, Isaiah Thomas, to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the second time that Thomas had been traded in the last six months, and it suggested that he was destined for a career as a journeyman scorer, plodding from team to team. Things looked very different for Thomas as recently as last summer. Back then, he was the star gunner for the Boston Celtics, and he was becoming something of a folk hero in the city. But then in August, the organization abruptly traded him to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving. At the time of the first trade, Thomas was just months off a colossal playoff run in which he played through major dental surgery, a hip labral tear and the loss of his younger sister, Chyna, in a car accident. In the days after her death, Thomas suited up against the Bulls: He had Chyna’s name written on his sneakers and fat tears pooled in his eyes. And then, as he’d done for years, Thomas — the shortest man in the N.B.A. — scored bunches of points with an intricate, endless string of feints, jabs and soft, soft jumpers.
Boston’s callousness shocked people. ESPN broke news with details of back-room negotiations. The Boston Globe celebrated Thomas’s bond to the city. FiveThirtyEight quantified the trade’s impact on the Celtics’ win-share probabilities. Barstool Sports posted a meme implying the Cavs’ J.R. Smith — a man known to enjoy life — would be too high to notice his team had swapped starting guards. It was an onslaught of facts, justifications, adjusted advanced-analytics projections and bits. But no amount of coverage could ever fully account for such an unexpected transaction.
Then, in early September, in a first-person essay for a website called The Players’ Tribune, Thomas filled in the gaps: How he wanted to hang up on the Celtics general manager, Danny Ainge; how he broke the news to his two young sons; how, after some time, he forced himself to accept that his Boston ascendancy was done. Sports fans had long ago ceased to expect access to the intimate concerns of superstar players: They were too famous, too rich, too big. But here was access not just to the life of a star but also to the star’s internal monologue. The Celtics front office had revealed that they saw Thomas as a mere asset — fungible, mobile, dispensable — and he responded by demonstrating his singularity. “When I say this hurts, man, just know that it isn’t because of anything anyone else did,” Thomas wrote. “It’s only because of something I did. I fell in love with Boston.” Reading it, I damn near cried.
Thomas’s article, more than any other in the site’s history, underscored the elemental purpose of The Players’ Tribune. Founded in October 2014 by the former Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, along with the sports-marketing executive Jaymee Messler, the company’s principle was that pro athletes were in dire need of an outlet in which to express themselves. Here, the athletes would be writing their own stories.
The Players’ Tribune originally gave athletes newsroom titles: David Ortiz, the jolly Red Sox slugger, was editor at large; Matt Harvey, the Mets hurler, was New York City bureau chief. On Twitter, jokes about Kobe Bryant — the editorial director! — flourished. Just imagine him screaming in the face of a middle reliever about a missing nut graf. For sports media, it was a way to grin in the face of the prickly existential fear they’d lived with ever since social media forever changed their industry. Twitter and Instagram had already conditioned athletes to communicate with the public directly. Might they, the middlemen and middlewomen, one day be cut out altogether? Wouldn’t athletes simply tell the same tales of humdrum perseverance that they do in Gatorade commercials? Didn’t good writing still require good writers?
Three years on, The Players’ Tribune has become a regular source of breaking news: Kevin Durant announced his league-upheaving move to Golden State in July 2016 with an essayistic memo, which then become a recurring format. In November 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement via 11 stanzas of spare, Japanese-style poetry, which, unfortunately, did not. And confessional pieces like Thomas’s, written by N.H.L. also-rans and Brazilian soccer stars alike, have regularly gone viral.
At its helm is Jeter, who spent 20 years in New York saying nothing to the press. He is an athlete famed, almost revered, for blankness. But the fact that he played in that Yankees spotlight for as long as he did and mostly avoided off-the-field notoriety suggests that Jeter might possess some hidden guile. After all, The Players’ Tribune represents the first truly new wrinkle in sportswriting in a decade. But what is it, exactly? It’s not fair to call it P.R. The access it provides is genuine. But you can’t really get around one tricky fact: When you give the subject the final cut, you can’t call it journalism either. Perhaps The Players’ Tribune can be best understood as an effort by athletes to seize that most precious contemporary commodity — the narrative.
As recently as the early 1980s, the walls between pro athletes and the sportswriters who covered them were permeable. Local newspaper reporters would travel with the team, dine with the team and sometimes have one too many cold domestics with the team. These people were, essentially, co-workers. By the ’90s, money, and the instincts for self-preservation that money engenders, had created a system of formalized control that holds to this day. Technically, there is access galore: before and after practice, before and after pregame warm-ups, before and after the game itself. But locker-room interviews are notoriously fruitless. Gary Hoenig, a 71-year-old ex-newspaperman and the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, who now works for The Players’ Tribune as an editor, told me, “I don’t think showering and standing there half-naked with a mic in your face is a great way to relate what your actual life is like.” And yet beat reporters trudge dutifully on, Bics in hand, and regularly do great work in unpromising situations.
But as meaningful access withered alongside print media, a new generation of sportswriters decided they would just stay in their living rooms and take their shots from there. The columnist Bill Simmons and the blog Deadspin pushed back against the hidebound conventions of sportswriting, the former with a hyperpersonal style defined by homerism, looseness and joy, the latter by happily pointing out all the ways we were being lied to. (I worked for Simmons at ESPN’s Grantland for four years.) Take, for example, their coverage of Jeter. Simmons and the baseball writers at Grantland assailed this purportedly unassailable figure, running geeky statistical analysis to prove that, despite his five Gold Gloves, he was actually a miserable defensive player. Deadspin, originally a Gawker affiliate, delighted in unearthing Jeter’s foibles. Once, it published a post suggesting he liked to watch his own highlights, in the nude, while shouting, over and over, “Yeah Jeets!” That this was based on an unverified rumor sourced from Reddit didn’t really matter. Deadspin was unconvinced that anyone, let alone a baseball player, should be uncomplicatedly revered. For millions of young fans, that mentality — that mainstream sports media presents a facile master narrative that is to be warred with at all times — became a defining principle.
And then there’s ESPN, which hovers above the whole system, Death Star-like, doing everything from dry game recaps to experiential multimedia packages to breaking-news pieces to talk shows that have come to define the way we shout about sports to websites like Grantland, which existed, to some extent, to question all of this. During his time at the network, the commentator Skip Bayless was well known for insisting that LeBron James was not, in fact, very good at basketball but was, rather, somewhat bad at basketball. And he never broke character. For the thinking sports fan, this was ESPN’s great tragedy: The network wanted it all, every last nook, and so it coupled its ambitious, unparalleled coverage with shameless, soul-crushing shouting.
For years, no one has dared to imagine a way to win back access. But The Players’ Tribune did, by completely redefining it. The site gives its subjects final approval of their own coverage. Normally, this would be a journalistic sin, were it not for an elegant and cynical workaround: giving the subject the byline. The model has precedent in the form of the ghostwritten as-told-to sports memoir, which has bred some stone-cold classics: “I Am Zlatan,” the Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s prickly and strange 2011 autobiography, is one of the best things I’ve ever read. (As a boy, Ibrahimovic celebrates personal milestones by stealing bicycles.) But being a bona fide literary achievement doesn’t mean it’s not brand management.
Last fall, on the West Side of Manhattan, I visited the consummately start-up-like offices of The Players’ Tribune, with its open-floor plan and glass-walled conference rooms, its espresso bar and its espresso bar’s adjoining patio and its adjoining patio’s stunning Hudson River views. Jeff Levick, The Players’ Tribune chief executive, greeted me in his large, airy and spare office. Slim, small and slightly mod, Levick speaks quickly and while speaking quickly says things like “global” and “aspirations” and “massive” and “disruption.” He had come onboard just a few weeks earlier as the company’s first C.E.O., and he was promising to turn a catchy idea with millions in financing from venture capitalists and athletes into a moneymaker. He was previously the chief revenue officer at Spotify, and, he explained, he saw the two companies as fundamentally alike. Both are “platforms,” he told me: one for music, the other for what he calls “A.G.C.” — “athlete-generated content.”
Levick was happy to tell me, in the classic manner of the disrupter, about how his company was about to upend an angry, worn-out industry. Sitting bolt upright, eyes locked onto mine, gesticulating with purpose, he pointed to the large flat-screen TV behind us: therein lay the enemy. “I have ESPN on all day long, and I get where these athletes are coming from,” he said. “These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they can’t catch a break! They’re getting beaten up all day. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get beaten up like that.” His point was this: All that unnecessary negativity that ESPN’s TV shows churn out is ultimately a boon to the bottom line of The Players’ Tribune because that negativity is persuading athletes to share their proprietary, much-desired content with The Players’ Tribune.
I suggested to Levick that there were still certain unique advantages that only traditional reporting can offer. “Well, then, I guess the story of how the Isaiah Thomas trade went down would have happened somewhere else,” he politely scoffed. “That, to me, was a piece of journalism that would never have been told through a sports reporter. They weren’t going to get access to that story. And it’s an amazing story.”
Sean Conboy is an intense, handsome, wide-eyed true believer who wears all black. At 31, he is the executive editor of The Players’ Tribune, which means he’s the chief ghostwriter, responsible for many of the articles that have gone viral. He has a desk somewhere, I assume, but whenever I caught him at the office, he and his laptop were itinerant. The first time I saw him, he was on a couch near a Pop-A-Shot basketball hoop, plotting a coming business trip to Madrid. The next time we sat entombed together in a fishbowl meeting room that at least felt, and may indeed have been, soundproof.
Conboy had previously worked at Wired and Sports Illustrated and was brought in before The Players’ Tribune concept had been publicly revealed, while athletes were still being recruited as investors. He remembers thinking, as it was explained to him in his first sit-down, that it could be interesting. “Or,” he recalled thinking, “it could be terrible!” Now he oversees a team of 10 out of an overall staff of nearly 80. They’ve developed a few routine practices to attempt, as best as possible, to simulate an editor-writer relationship with the athlete. They push to get direct cell numbers and emails. They warn of the commitment to come. “We say off the bat, this is not a dashed off thing,” he said. “This isn’t a transcript of an interview. You’re signing up for a partnership. We wanna make a movie.”
Sometimes, the athletes “come in hot” with a draft or even just a long text message; other times, the athletes first want to talk through a difficult experience. When the former N.H.L. goalie Corey Hirsch wrote about the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder that nearly pushed him to drive his car off a cliff, he spoke with Conboy five or six times. (Hockey has been the source of a number of The Players’ Tribune’s best stories, churning out compelling characters at a rate incommensurate with its place in the culture at large: The former Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton once provided an anecdote about his Parkinson’s-afflicted grandmother trying to talk him into letting her slug some booze out of the Stanley Cup.) Hirsch first revealed his story without being sure he would actually go through with publishing it. He was nervous about how his family would perceive it; and he nearly pulled it. That risk is part of the process at The Players’ Tribune: Whether it’s video or print, athletes have final cut and can kill a whole project. But Hirsch went through with it, and his article has been read more than a million times.
Like Hirsch, the Miami Heat shooting guard Dion Waiters is not a player familiar to casual fans. But his April 2017 essay is perhaps the best thing the site has published. Waiters is a famously overconfident shooter — a chucker. In the article, through tales of violence, doubt, heartbreak and nausea, he doesn’t bother defending himself. Instead, he doubles down. “I see what people say about me,” he writes. “I see the GIFs and all that. They say, ‘He never seen a shot he don’t like.’ ‘He’s got irrational confidence.’ ‘He thinks he’s the best player in the N.B.A.’ Hell yeah I do.” The essay was published during the N.B.A. playoffs, but the Heat’s season was already over. The title of the piece: “The N.B.A. Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles.”
After Conboy finishes his ghostwriting, a lot of athletes can get judicious, carefully pruning or deleting moments of oversharing. “We want athletes that go in the Google Doc and just go to town,” he told me. “That’s the best version of this.” He recalled Isaiah Thomas’s writing his first piece for the site. “It was 1 a.m. East Coast time, and he’s texting about line edits,” Conboy said. “ ‘Move this around. What if this was said this way.’ ” Some players even act just like prima donna magazine writers and fight with their editors over every word. “Kobe writes his own drafts,” Conboy said, smiling. “Literally, he writes his own drafts.”
But most don’t. In fact, the process, as Conboy described it to me, was oddly familiar. For the Waiters story, Conboy and his subject went out for cheese steaks in Philly, then later did a two-hour interview. “Profile writing, it’s not easy,” he said, picking his words carefully. “You’re not getting two hours anymore hardly anywhere.” But Conboy could. Effectively, The Players’ Tribune has found a way to simulate the access of olden times by putting control in the hands of the wealthy and attractive subjects. In a way, Conboy did profile Waiters. He just didn’t receive the byline.
The Players’ Tribune has an annual tradition called the “athlete board meeting.” It’s open to just about anyone in the biz; a big room full of obscure Olympians and megastars, retired and active, male and female alike. They hold it in Los Angeles every July, the week of ESPN’s awards show, the ESPYs. This past year’s meeting was led by Bryant, one of the company’s more enthusiastic investors. (A member of the editorial staff told me about an early meeting in Los Angeles, purportedly just a low-key hang to kick around story ideas; Bryant showed up via helicopter with a small black notebook that he quickly filled as he proceeded to ask an intense stream of highly informed digital-media-strategy questions.) At one point, Levick recalls, Bryant threw out a question to the room: “ ‘What keeps you up at night?’ ” One of the athletes responded, “ ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that my legacy will only be what people see on the field. That they won’t know me for all the other things that are interesting to me.’ And all these hands went up. ‘Totally.’ ‘Totally.’ ‘That worries me so much.’ ”
Can this really be a going concern? That our obsessive sports media is missing heretofore untold, profound personal truths about our heroes? For all its peaks, on any given day reading The Players’ Tribune, you might just run into a variation of “Hey [Insert City] — we’re gonna give it our all this year.” Neither the site itself nor its social media has become a real destination. According to comScore, the site gets a respectable 3.4 million unique views a month; its Twitter account has just over half a million followers. A lot of its content is, frankly, repetitive and predictable. The pieces that succeed effectively float away from The Players’ Tribune and into the national conversation.
In 2015 Katie Nolan, then the host of the scrappy, low-budget Fox Sports show “Garbage Time,” lodged a critique of The Players’ Tribune model. “It isn’t for us fans,” she said in a segment on the show, which had a certain outsider credibility. (It has since been canceled.) “It’s for the players who want to appear like an open book without the risk of getting themselves in trouble for being an open book. And maybe I’m being cynical, but that sucks.”
I brought this up to Hoenig, the Players’ Tribune editor. Hoenig has had a long, lucrative career. You get the sense that he’s quite pleased to be at The Players’ Tribune and that he’s not all that worried about what happens next. Now, though, he let himself get worked up. “Is it P.R. to say I’m putting a face on somebody that you feel completely free to attack willy-nilly without knowing who they are?” he said. “Yes, it’s good strategy for an athlete to control his own — I don’t even call it image — his own narrative. That’d be a good strategy for you and me too.”
The first time I saw Jeter at The Players’ Tribune, he appeared, fists pounding on the door, at a corner office where I had been chatting with Jon Sakoda, an early-stage investor. Laid on a low piece of cabinetry was a massive, glitzy championship belt given to the Players’ Tribune president, Jaymee Messler, by her pal Stephanie McMahon, daughter of the W.W.E. chief executive Vince McMahon. Jeter and Sakoda spent a few minutes admiring it. “You’re getting one next!” Jeter promised Sakoda. Then he briefly ambled off to find help in figuring out why Uber wasn’t working on his new phone. It was another sunny day in the well-lit Manhattan offices of a celebrity-backed, moneyed start-up with ambitions far beyond its page views.
Jeter spends most of his time in Miami, where he’s the chief executive of the Marlins, and doesn’t have his own full-time office here. We met later in a vacant office, under a wall of perfectly arrayed framed memories: photos from charity parties, past Jeter press coverage, Bryant’s poem. In person, Jeter looked good — in his bluejeans and dark gray henley, the picture of casual bro chic. But there were moments that remind you that he has been around awhile. He rolled out a rotator cuff, slowly; he smashed a fist into a spike of pain on his lower thigh. His rookie season was 1996. He dated Mariah Carey! For the better part of the first half of his career, the worst-case scenario was a Page Six write-up on what Meatpacking District club he was at last night.
I theorized that The Players’ Tribune had been born as a retaliation to the gossip columnists who had poked and prodded him for so long. He shrugged it off. “You know how many phone calls I’ve gotten from my mom through the years when I was younger asking me questions?” he said. “Eventually you just try not to pay attention to it.” He added: “You remember the Motorola two-way? When they came out? That was as good as it came. Then the color one came out. And all of a sudden. …” He trailed off. “Everything you do is public knowledge.”
I asked him about Alex Rodriguez, his former teammate and frenemy, and a player famously, calamitously inept during his playing career at controlling his public image. (Just search for “A-Rod kisses himself.”) Did Jeter ever try to help him? “I spoke with everyone,” he said. “I would stress accountability to anyone that came to our organization.”
I asked whether, had today’s athlete protests spread to the Yankees while Jeter was playing, would he have taken a knee. “I’m not in the clubhouse now,” he said. “I’ll say: Everyone has a right to peaceful protest.”
What did I know about Derek Jeter? Not much and certainly nothing new after this brief encounter. I left the interview feeling as though, intentionally or not, he’d made a good case for access journalism’s uselessness. We already live among the distorting effects of Twitter and Instagram, the uncanny and calculated sense of intimacy that social-media platforms provide. Now we have a model that simulates objective journalism, supposedly written by the people who were once subject to that journalism’s scrutiny.
Projecting The Players’ Tribune model forward, we can imagine a world in which athletes simply don’t need to talk to reporters, in an echo of what feels like the unstoppable atomization of all news and information. Politicians, TV showrunners, labor-union leaders: theoretically The Players’ Tribune platform is replicable for any public professional. In the future, perhaps, every last person will get to broadcast his or her own particular worldview, free of objectivity, on a bespoke, partisan media organ, with slick photography and design. And it will be up to us to decide what version of the truth we want to believe.