Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.

“Gotcha Tweets”–Nothing We Can’t Stop


Jonathan Bullard is a senior defensive tackle for Florida.  He passed on the NFL draft to return for his senior season, and is having a great year as a defensive leader for the Gators.

But for the right now, he is noteworthy for the following statement he made about how to defend LSU running back Leonard Fournette:

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It might seem like careless trash talk, but that was not happening here.

The Bullard tweet was taken from a longer quote (via @CodyWorsham): “He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball to tackle him.  I don’t think it’s … he’s nothing we can’t stop, but we all have to rally to the ball, because he’s an excellent athlete.”

Confident, but not exactly bulletin board trash talk. But as tweeted by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the snippet was featured in articles by Bleacher Report and FOXSports.com (and a few LSU fan sites, I’d guess0.

In fairness, others presented the quote in its largest context, like Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com, Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, and Des Bieler of the Washington Post.

Fournette had been the subject of similar talk in recent weeks.  When asked about stopping Fournette before the Auburn-LSU game, Rudy Ford of Auburn said, “That shouldn’t be difficult, that much, of a challenge.”

To their credit, Auburn beat writers like Tom Green (@AUblog at @oanow) included quotes from elsewhere in Ford’s presser, but it was not the complete thought that Bullard provided.

College football fans remember how well that turned out — Auburn fans with particular pain.  And Ford’s disinterested attempt at tackling Ford on a long run (more a version of “one-hand touch”) didn’t make his life any easier after Fournette’s 228 yards on 19 carries.

The question is, did Long do right by Bullard? Obviously not. The quote was tweeted out of context, and I would predict that a small percentage of college football fans sought out the longer quote.

Bullard at first expressed his displeasure with what Long had done.

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Long did provide the longer quote more than an hour later, and acknowledged what happened to Bullard in a Twitter exchange.  Bullard, showing amazing class for how he had been misquoted, was gracious in his reply:

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But the damage had been done.

Anyone who knows media knows that the Associated Press is not a hot take machine. I did a temporary assignment for them way back in 1978, right out of college, and have always had a “gold-standard” level of respect for them.

I am not as familiar with Long as I am with the Alabama AP crew, but I would guess (and hope) that he does not gotcha-tweet too much.

That said (“hot take” pushers can stop reading here), anyone who considers himself or herself a journalist should understand the need to avoid out-of-context quotes, particularly on Twitter.

The SPJ Code of Ethics puts it this way: “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”  To the extent that Twitter does all three, it’s a relevant caution.

There seems to be extra caution, perhaps additional care, in working with college student-athletes, who sometimes lack media savvy.

Bullard, as a senior, could be expected to know better, and he did better, as his complete quote showed. Ford should simply be smarter, period. But sometimes a young athlete speaks unwisely. It is up to the individual journalist to know when to take the ball and run with it, or when to the hand the ball back and say, “Did you mean to give me this?”

Regardless of the age or media experience of the source, it is also up to journalists to treat all sources fairly, especially on Twitter. To paraphrase, a tweet makes its way around the world while a complete, contextual report is still putting on its boots.

Let’s make sure the tweets that we send into orbit are grounded in fairness and context.

Why Was the Ukwuachu Indictment Sealed?

(UPDATED Feb. 11 to add Twitter conversation with Paula Lavigne, author of the OTL piece on Baylor)

Since the August conviction of Sam Ukwuachu for sexual assault, much has been written about Baylor and its response to investigating sexual assault, especially those involving athletes.

But a question has remained since August 2015, when Ukwuachu was convicted and then later sentenced: Why was crucial public information regarding Ukwuachu’s indictment withheld in June 2014? Who withheld it? Why?

More important, why is nobody asking why?

He was indicted for the crime, whose victim was an unidentified Baylor athlete, on June 25, 2014.  The list of indictments for that date does not include his name among the 100-plus released.

What happened was that Ukwuachu apparently was indicted first, then arrested and charged via a “direct indictment,” which shields the suspect and others from the open records of a pre-indictment arrest report.  The name was then redacted from the indictment list released to the public.

According to the attorneys that I talked to, a direct indictment, or any such situation where the case is sealed, is usually used when a juvenile or someone else involved in the case (usually the victim) needs shielding for their own protection.

Under what logic could that be applied to Ukwuachu’s case?  Concern for the victim?  The other sexual assault cases also involved victims, but the DA’s office did not seem to show the same reticence in publishing the names of those defendants.

And anyway, this is all speculation without a specific arrest report.  Remember that the information gap existed between the unreported indictment and the week before the trial began.  The arrest, never reported, falls into the same void.

UPDATE: After reading Paula Lavigne’s Outside the Lines report on Baylor’s response to sexual assault cases involving athletes, I linked her to this article and asked her if she had any idea why the Ukwuachu indictment had been sealed.  She replied via Twitter:

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I do appreciate Lavigne’s taking the time to reply, but I don’t see the connection between an unreported indictment/arrest and a gag order.  A gag order is a frequent ruling in a high-profile trial.  But it relates to behavior outside of the court, not to the release of arrest information.

If the judge did want to limit public comments on the case, why not release the indictment/arrest (as is typically done) and simultaneously issue a gag order to all participants, as the judge did when Ukwuachu’s trial actually began?  Wouldn’t that accomplish the same goal, while providing the Waco and Baylor communities with important information?

Still, with the indictment information not released, as she pointed out, the Waco Tribune-Herald would not be in a position to know about the indictment:

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(NOTE: The rest of these paragraphs were part of the original post.)

The on-campus student affairs office investigation had apparently been closed by the time of the indictment.  The various reports do not give specific dates on that investigation, but a university representative said they try to complete them within 60 days of reporting.

Were Baylor student affairs personnel aware of Ukuwachu’s indictment?  Would this provide the “new information” that allows a university to reopen a disciplinary case?

The broader issue here involves the openness of the legal system.  The Supreme Court has defended the open courts system — setting some sky-high hurdles for closing a trial.  That’s not a service to the media; it’s a right of the people.

Always, but especially these days, Americans need to know what is going on with their legal system.  When information is withheld, there needs to be an excellent reason for it.  Otherwise citizens might lose faith in the fairness of their legal system.

Now that they know, however, the media need to treat this more seriously.  It involves the withholding of sexual assault-related information to the Baylor and Waco community — to young women, to their parents.  It hindered the media from doing their job.

This editorial from the Waco Tribune-Herald asks some important, direct questions, but seems to breeze past the issue of the sealed indictment with little acknowledgement, as if it were a mundane legal procedure instead of an ethical decision that deserves scrutiny.

Perhaps there is a good reason for sealing the indictment and not disclosing the arrest, and if that reason is offered, I will share it.  (Update: Seven months later, a satisfactory reason still has not been shared.)  For now, it looks like the same cozy relationship between police and college football team that has been cited and criticized on other campuses — though for an issue like sexual assault, it is particularly unthinkable that any college or its surrounding community would tolerate the strategy used by the Waco police and DA.

Even more frustrating is when no one cares enough to ask DA Abel Reyna or Assistant DA LaBorde.

Baylor has faced and has tried to answer a lot of questions following the Ukwuachu and Tevin Elliott cases.

Let’s not ignore questions about another question: a published indictment list that omitted the name of an accused felon.