The Activist Athlete in the Digital Age - Pacific Standard

The Activist Athlete in the Digital Age

Could platforms like The Players’ Tribune usher in a new age of activism among athletes? The answer is up to us.
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Larry Sanders dunking in a game in March 2013 against the Washington Wizards. (Photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)

Larry Sanders dunking in a game in March 2013 against the Washington Wizards. (Photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)

For much of this NBA season, if you wanted to watch Larry Sanders play basketball you were relegated to the far corners of YouTube or required to deep-dive into your memory bank. He appeared in 27 games, in the sense that he was physically on the court for 27 games, but he was markedly disinterested in accomplishing anything beyond that. Then, in December, he stopped coming into work.

Soon after, rumors began to circulate that Sanders was caught in the throes of some drug-induced haze. His dispassion chalked up to habit he couldn’t kick. Last week, in a video posted at The Players’ Tribune, he addressed the situation himself.

“I know I disappeared for awhile, people were wondering where I was,” he said. “I entered in Rogers Memorial Hospital, into a program for anxiety and depression—mood disorders.” Sanders went on to explain that, for now, he’s done playing professional basketball.

How much can athletes really say online, how far can they stray from the party line, before they are reprimanded by their organizations or some sort of censorship is enacted?

Then the tone changed. In one five-minute video, Sanders shifted the popular narrative that had come to define his season. In news reports, he went from a disappointing athlete to an honorable one—that praise rightly earned.

Sanders told his own story, in his own words, until the situation, hypothesized and obfuscated up until that point, was abundantly clear. Beyond his personal struggle, he brought attention to mental health, which continues to be a critically ignored, under-reported, and under-discussed issue that touches everyone’s lives. This is important for obvious reasons, but it’s also a little more complicated than that.

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The Player’s Tribune bills itself as a new media platform, a home for the unfiltered voice of the professional athlete. The founder, Derek Jeter, writes on the homepage that the goal for the site is to “ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information, bringing fans closer than ever to the games they love.”

Beneath those words, there’s a trio of anonymous email addresses. The people behind the site—the editors, content managers, digital directors, etc.—are unseen. The athletes carry editorial titles—Kobe Bryant is the editorial director, and Russell Wilson is a senior editor, as is Blake Griffin, Danica Patrick, and Andrew McCutchen. The platform is polished and glossy, easily navigable, and also compiles Instagram posts and tweets from athletes, furthering the effect of direct athlete-to-fan communication, or at least the perception of it.

Despite the sophisticated presentation, the site is also easy to dismiss. The stories can be shallow, hinting at big issues but not really discussing them. Deadspin called it a “stylish repackaging of social-media vanity.” The journalism comes up short, which is to be expected. It would be challenging, after all, to show your reporting chops while in the midst of playing an NBA season.

Less easy to dismiss, though, is the reach of the athlete’s voice. Just four months old, The Players’ Tribune has already attracted a large and engaged audience. The stories, even when lightly skimming an issue, spur discussion. When Larry Sanders talks about mental health, or Andrew McCutchen talks about class, or Jason Collin talks about race, so do other people.

These stories, even if they are heavily vetted by a public relations team, have a purpose that reaches far beyond an athlete’s personal brand, and that engagement, the active consumption, is the key that drives the site and will continue to drive it—and others like it—moving forward. Most importantly, it could, potentially, lead to a resurrection of the athlete as activist.

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The Players’ Tribune is just one space where the voice of the athlete is being heard. In January Josh Gordon wrote an excellent piece about his media portrayal at Medium, Jerryd Bayless recently discussed the ups and downs of being a journeyman athlete at his personal blog, and others, on Twitter and Instagram and beyond, reach out in different ways each day.

The wall between the athlete and the fan is crumbling, and the ground below, while fertile for branding and self-promotion, can also be the home of important and needed discussion. Between the weeds there is space for something better.

Derek Jeter introduces his new website. (Photo: The Player's Tribune)

Derek Jeter introduces his new website. (Photo: The Player's Tribune)

That is not to say that every fan is reading and following along with great interest when an athlete takes up a social cause. There are many who rise from their couches, or preach from their mass-mediated pulpits, and proclaim for us all that athletes should “stick to sports.” This is an obviously dumb and narrow perspective, but it’s also history repeating itself.

Traditionally, this is the way it works: an athlete speaks out politically, they are celebrated in some corners and banished in others. Years pass, and later their activism becomes linked to their career. It becomes part of their legacy. In some cases, it may even outshine their athletic accomplishments, no matter how staggering.

We’ve seen this before with Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King and Tommie Smith. And we’re starting to see rumblings of it again. Athletes, even those with the most to risk, are showing that they aren’t afraid to throw their support behind politically charged issues. But between then and now, there was a lull, the commodification of sport exploded, and dollars usurped activism. Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous athlete of the 20th century, is a glaring example.

The platform is polished and glossy, easily navigable, and also compiles Instagram posts and tweets from athletes, furthering the effect of direct athlete-to-fan communication, or at least the perception of it.

In 1990, when Jordan was asked why he wasn’t backing African American democrat Harvey Gantt, who was running for the U.S. Senate against segregationist Strom Thurmond in North Carolina at the time, he responded: “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

The Players’ Tribune is aware of its potential for social benefit; it’s too carefully constructed not to be. It may not, is probably not, the right stage for a political athlete, but it could be. As could Medium or Twitter or whatever comes next. The point is that The Players’ Tribune is offering a stage, and ushering in a larger trend, that hasn’t existed previously, at least in this form. That’s significant, even if the presentation is tacky.

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The Players’ Tribune also begets a second question. How much can athletes really say online, how far can they stray from the party line, before they are reprimanded by their organizations or some sort of censorship is enacted?

The answer, probably, is just as much as they ever could, only now with greater prominence.

In 1992, Craig Hodges, a guard with the Chicago Bulls and one of the league’s best three-point shooters, visited the White House with his teammates after they won the NBA Championship. He brought with him a hand-written letter for President Bush, which expressed his frustration at the administration's treatment of minorities and the poor. That same season, he openly criticized his most famous teammate, Jordan, for failing to use his stage to draw attention to social and political issues.

Shorty after that White House visit, Hodges was out of work. Despite his deft shooting as a backup guard on a team that had just won consecutive championships, no team would touch him. In 1996, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against the NBA, stating that “the owners and operators of the 29 N.B.A. member franchises have participated as co-conspirators” in “blackballing” Hodges from the league “because of his outspoken political nature as an African-American man.”

Fast-forward 20 years. Change the sport and the issue. Enter Chris Kluwe. The former NFL punter has been a supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage since 2012, when he publicly released a letter that he had sent to Maryland state assembly delegate Emmett Burns, wherein he defended Brendon Ayanbadejo, another NFL player and supporter of same-sex marriage. (After Ayanbadejo had made his support public, Burns wrote a letter to his team, asking ownership to "inhibit such expressions.”) Kluwe continued to be outspoken on the topic until May 2013, when he was released by his team, the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings claimed poor performance, and, in a lawsuit of his own, Kluwe argued his release was due to his outspokenness.

Through email I asked Dr. Michael Giardina, associate professor of sport management at Florida State University and the editor of the Sociology of Sport Journal, if he thought things would play out differently for Hodges in today’s environment. His response:

I think things would have gone differently, though I do not know that the outcome would have been any different for Hodges. Certainly, he would have had another platform from which to speak and espouse his particular views (e.g., he could have posted the contents of the letter he delivered to President Bush in 1992 on his Facebook page or Twitter feed if it happened today), and the Bulls likely would have had to push back on cutting him from the team beyond press releases and any sort of press conference that it might have held, but the end result likely wouldn't have changed, with the exception that more people likely would have heard about his particular form of activism (which we might take as a positive thing despite the same outcome).

This is where the role of the fan, and the importance of media like Deadspin and Vice Sports, who aren’t afraid to push back and be critical of “sport as entertainment,” factors in. Now, more than ever, there’s a prominent stage for athletes to take up a cause and engage with fans, whether it’s through their own social media accounts or a platform like The Players’ Tribune. But that’s only the first part. The rest of it is on us.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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