What to make of Derek Jeter's Players' Tribune

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Derek Jeter's the Players' Tribune is a website devoted to writing by professional athletes

The Players’ Tribune, which celebrated its official launch in New York over the weekend, seems an unlikely second act for Derek Jeter.

The former Yankees shortstop, who retired at the end of last season, founded the website, which had a soft launch in October, to feature writing by professional athletes, promising a kind of insiders' look at the world of sports.

This is not a new idea, particularly; the athlete-as-writer has been around since at least the 1880s, when the byline of future Hall of Famer King Kelly of the Boston Beaneaters (later the Red Sox) graced the cover of the ghostwritten “King Kelly’s Play Ball.” Jeter himself recently published “The Contract,” a book for middle readers, under his Simon & Schuster imprint, Jeter Publishing.

The Players’ Tribune claims to be different, however: new media, new approach. “My goal,” Jeter declares on the website, “is … to ultimately transform how athletes and newsmakers share information.”

The kickoff was followed quickly with announcements of distribution and content partnerships with AOL and SiriusXM. But even though the flackage uses phrases such as "bringing fans closer to the games they love," the reality has been more hit and miss.

There are some substantial pieces. Jason Kidd, of all people, offers a smart take on the value of slowing down in the midst of competition; “There’s a rhythm to how a play unfolds in the NBA,” he tells us. “There’s a certain song to it, and the good players move with the song. You have to be aware of spacing — that may be the most important thing. Look at the veteran San Antonio teams and how good their spacing is.”

Andrew McCutchen recalls his own long and (at times) tenuous journey to Major League Baseball, using the scandal over Jackie Robinson West, the team from the South Side of Chicago recently stripped of its 2014 Little League World Series title, as a frame.

McCutchen’s argument — that “[b]aseball used to be the sport where all you needed was a stick and a ball. It used to be a way out for poor kids. Now it’s a sport that increasingly freezes out kids whose parents don’t have the income to finance the travel baseball circuit” — is powerful and pointed about a sports landscape where, like so much else, privilege increasingly determines opportunity.

And yet, there is also plenty of the usual preening: Kobe Bryant on his alpha male aggression, former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd on why, despite pressure to enter the NFL early, he chose to stay in school.

One of the issues is that even Boyd, who has thus far flamed out in pro football, is writing from the posture of a frontline player, steeped in the culture of success. The most interesting work by athletes has generally been by the journeymen — pitcher Jim Brosnan, who essentially invented the form of the player diary with “The Long Season” (1960) and “Pennant Race” (1962), or Pat Jordan, a bonus baby for the Braves who never made it, describing his experiences in the minor leagues in the memoir “A False Spring.”

Even Jerry Kramer, whose “Instant Replay” charts the experience of playing for the 1967 NFL champion Green Bay Packers, was a grunt: a lineman, not a star.

The lesson? Perhaps that for athletes, as for all writers, it is the outsiders who offer the most compelling perspectives, who are most willing to share the struggles of the game.

Twitter: @davidulin

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