How players began telling a new story about sports.
In October 2014, three days after Derek Jeter played the last game of his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees, he launched the Players’ Tribune, a Web site for athletes to tell their side of the story. It seemed like an odd decision. As a player, Jeter had always been a polite but almost pathologically reserved presence, offering the media Pro-forma pleasantries, deflecting deeper inquiries into his personal life. The site, he explained, would give athletes a chance to speak directly to fans, who deserved “more than ‘no comments’ or ‘I don’t know.’ ” Naturally, these were just the types of answers that he was known for.
At first, it was a bit funny, the notion of Jeter hounding athletes for their delinquent essays. Most imagined that the site would be little more than a place for tight-lipped players to issue elegant press statements. But Jeter’s peers began to understand the allure of speaking on their own terms, and in their own voice. In 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement by publishing a poem in the Tribune. The following year, Kevin Durant revealed his free-agency decision there. The appeal of the site as a space for storytelling, and the extent to which it was disrupting traditional flows of information, became hard to ignore. In 2017, Dion Waiters, a player renowned for his astronomical level of self-regard, cemented his legend with an essay about his scrappy upbringing, titled “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles.” The All-Star forward Kevin Love wrote about struggling with depression. The Tribune helped popularize a wider range of athlete stories. Triumphs were flecked with pain or self-doubt; stars openly shared their traumas.
In the past, if athletes wanted to speak candidly, they would write a tell-all book, do a sit-down interview, maybe phone in to a radio show. If they aspired to work in media, they would try to land a cushy network job, providing expert commentary or analysis. But the Internet, which allows any of us to air the slightest thought, has changed those rules. Players have grown infatuated with sharing their perspectives in real time, in direct, unfiltered ways. Retired greats have realized that they possess endless content—stories, memories, behind-the-scenes morsels—that fans crave. And athletes everywhere are seizing the means of production. Around the time that Jeter launched the Tribune, LeBron James got funding for a new company, Uninterrupted. Its aim was to produce content from players’ points of view, and to show that those players could be “more than an athlete.” People like Jeter and James no longer had to settle for being talking heads. Now they barely had to settle for sports at all.
The space where athletes—or male athletes, at least—have found the greatest success as storytellers is in podcasting. The more polished shows can feel like extended auditions for media jobs, full of the rhythms and recurring segments of mainstream sports talk. The wrestler Chris Jericho hosts a surprisingly brisk interview show, “Talk Is Jericho,” with regular appearances from the Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan. The controversial, bro-centric media company Barstool Sports produces “Spittin’ Chiclets,” featuring the former N.H.L. players Ryan Whitney and Paul Bissonnette, and helped launch a popular series by the former N.F.L. punter Pat McAfee. Mike Tyson leads “Hotboxin’,” which has a loose, philosophical energy—it’s more “On Being” than “The Joe Rogan Experience.” And, in 2016, the writer Bill Simmons founded a Web site and podcast network called the Ringer, which elevated podcasters like the former pitcher C. C. Sabathia, the Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and the New Orleans Pelicans guard J. J. Redick. If athlete-driven podcasts were once shoestring affairs, they’ve now been absorbed into the sports-media economy. Last year, the Ringer was acquired by Spotify for around two hundred million dollars.
Redick’s current podcast, “The Old Man & the Three,” which he started last summer, alongside his own production company, embodies the strengths of these more tightly packaged shows. Redick has interviewed Stacey Abrams, Bob Iger, and Matthew McConaughey, but his primary role is as a sort of liaison between players and fans. He’s mellow and thoughtful, conscious of his position as a white athlete from a hippie background, which makes him an outlier in the N.B.A. (His likability might be surprising to those who recall his career at Duke University, where his smug affect made him one of the most hated players in basketball.) Now a respected veteran, he often talks about the tedium of N.B.A. life; after all, it’s why he has time to podcast in the first place.
It’s particularly fascinating to hear Redick relate to younger players. In a recent episode, he talked to his former teammate Markelle Fultz about a spell a few years ago, in Fultz’s rookie season, when the guard dealt with a mysterious injury. As Fultz recovered, the media seemed to delight in dissecting every twitch of his body, and Redick lashed out at reporters. On the show, Fultz expressed his gratitude for Redick’s support, before talking about the mental strain of being scrutinized. It was an interesting moment, in which Redick was able to move between being a teammate, sympathetic to Fultz’s apprehension of the media, and an inquisitive member of the media himself.
In the past, this kind of mediation was handled mostly by journalists. That arrangement could be mutually beneficial for reporters (who sought access) and players (who wanted to protect their images). But there was always a tension thrumming in the background. Generations of Black athletes witnessed firsthand how they could be misread simply for having tattoos, wearing certain clothes, or speaking in ways that the media deemed inarticulate. This was especially true in the N.B.A. of the late nineties and early two-thousands, when the league, confronting the decline of its icon, Michael Jordan, cast about for a new identity. At the time, players could enter the league straight from high school, bringing a youthful, hip-hop-adjacent swagger that made owners and officials wary. A turning point came in 2004, when a skirmish broke out in the final seconds of a nationally televised game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The Pacers star Metta Sandiford-Artest—then known as Ron Artest—charged into the stands after a fan threw a drink at him. The media demonized the players involved, and new rules about off-court dress were introduced to make the league seem more presentable. Athletes rarely got the chance to speak their minds from inside the fishbowl.
It’s not surprising that players from this era have taken to podcasting, and that they produce some of the richest, most vibrant work in the form. An exemplar is “All the Smoke,” hosted by the former players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. (“Smoke” refers to their taunting and trash-talking, and winks at their fondness for marijuana.) Barnes and Jackson were scrappy and competitive; they became folk heroes as part of the 2006-7 Golden State Warriors, an underdog team whose coach now shares the pair’s enthusiasm for weed. Their show is loose and meandering, even playfully unhinged. They tell stories that few reporters could pry out of them—gossip about life on the road, women, who was authentically tough. (Jackson was part of the Pistons-Pacers brawl, and he often ponders how his career might have been different had he not been vilified.) The show routinely sheds light on the fraternal aspect of basketball. Last year, it featured one of the last interviews with Kobe Bryant before his death. At first, Bryant, who had known Jackson since they were teen-agers, adopts his standard, media-trained mode, issuing homilies about creativity and focus. After a few minutes, though, he eases up, chuckles, and recalls the first time he heard the rapper E-40, in the mid-nineties, at a camp for the nation’s best players.
“All the Smoke” rejects the decorum of the TV studio, and one of its pleasures is how openly the hosts talk about their inner lives, their experiences as Black men. In one episode, Barnes asks his former coach Doc Rivers what it was like to grow up with a father who was a cop. Last September, Jackson spoke movingly about his relationship with George Floyd, whom he befriended when they were teen-agers, growing up in Texas. After Floyd’s death, Jackson went to Minnesota to help lead protests against police brutality. He described how helpless he felt, contrasting it with the feelings of control that he found on the court. Floyd had fallen into the street life, Jackson said, and their friendship became complicated as they grew older. “That could have been you if it wasn’t for basketball,” Barnes observed.
The exchange laid bare the fallacy that athletes should “stick to sports”—a call that has grown almost in direct proportion to Black players speaking out about police brutality or racial abuse. A subtle feeling of gratitude runs through “All the Smoke,” a disbelief, on the part of Barnes and Jackson, that they are lucky enough to have full lives to look back on. In a recent episode, their guest was Kendrick Perkins, who retired in 2019. Perkins was not a player known for his finesse, and he now draws on his blunt, bruising directness as an analyst for ESPN. Perkins claimed that he appeared on the network for a year without compensation. (Apparently, the promise of “exposure” also works on people who have earned seven-figure salaries.) He initially saw the gig as a ramp into coaching. But he talked about Jackson’s influence as a trailblazer, and joked that the success of “All the Smoke” proved that he, too, could speak “broken English” and find a home in the media.
It remains enormously expensive to broadcast live sports. Few things compel millions of people to watch TV like a big game, and the captive audience props up an increasingly outdated economic model of commercial breaks, high-profile sponsors, and advertisers. But fan engagement is no longer bound by live contests, or by seasons at all. Trades, trash talk, and backstage maneuvering have made leagues like the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. year-round concerns, driving up demand for more content. At times, the sheer volume of N.B.A.-related material online—from Bleacher Report’s House of Highlights brand, which aggregates clips, to the dozens of Instagram accounts devoted to player fashion—can make the games feel ancillary.
Podcasts are a part of this shift, though they operate at a different rhythm. They’re slow and immersive, more concerned with humanizing players than with turning them into culture-war memes. In 2017, the veterans Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye started a podcast called “Road Trippin’,” interviewing their teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both men admitted that they were just sticking around the league as long as they could, riding the coattails of All-Star teammates like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Fans are accustomed to seeing teams as engaged in collective struggle, and we often frame that struggle in moral or political ways. But “Road Trippin’ ” also depicted the Cavs as a kind of workplace, where you simply had to tolerate some of your colleagues’ strange habits. In one episode, Jefferson and Frye talked to Irving shortly before the 2017 All-Star break. They joked about the aliases they use when checking into hotels, and exchanged thoughts on extraterrestrial life. At one point, Irving aired his skepticism that the Earth was round. “Here we go,” Frye said. Within the flow of their conversation, it was just another quirky moment, proof that Irving was, in the parlance, a different dude. But the clip became a sound bite—evidence, for the wider world, of Irving’s insoluble weirdness. He was constantly asked about it by reporters.
Since then, Irving’s relationship with the media has curdled, especially as he’s become more outspoken about politics. The most in-depth interview he’s given in some time was last fall, when he appeared on his teammate Kevin Durant’s podcast, “The ETCs.” A few months later, at the beginning of this season, he skipped his mandatory media sessions, writing on Instagram that he didn’t speak with “pawns.” Whatever the root offense had been, it was clear Irving no longer felt that reporters could convey the full range of his thoughts or priorities. He was a quester who happened to be very good at basketball. The sport seemed no more important than the clout it gave him, which he could then apply to the issues—police brutality, Native rights, food insecurity—that he cared about.
In a recent episode of “Real Ones,” a Ringer podcast that pairs the former player Raja Bell with the journalist Logan Murdock, Bell reflected on what it meant for players like Irving to tell their own stories. He brought up a sour period from his playing days in Utah, noting that fans might have treated him differently had he had a more expansive platform. But Bell also suggested that there was a generational difference between someone like him, who came of age in the eighties and nineties, and a millennial like Irving. Back in his day, social media would have been a useful tool against one-sided reporting. Yet he didn’t necessarily share Irving’s need to feel recognized on some deeper, human level. “No one says you have to bare your soul,” Bell said.
When I was growing up, an athlete like Michael Jordan could feel ubiquitous yet totally unknowable. In the eighties and nineties, this was what it meant to be iconic: people grabbed on to fragments of your persona, as with Jordan’s near-psychotic will to win, and turned them into tokens of virtue. Controlling one’s image meant withholding any signs of weakness or vulnerability.
For the most part, the media abetted this process. Fans turned to sports for escapism, and sports coverage allowed them to view athletes from a distance, as avatars that they could manipulate. Listening to players talk about what they actually value—for hours, and often to each other—upends this theatre, destabilizing the role that sports play in our lives. If, as Bell suggests, the Internet makes us believe that we might be understood, then athletes are still avatars, but for our real selves, rather than for our fantasies of greatness. Durant, for example, is unflappably cool on the court. But on his podcast he often seems open and slightly vexed, as though whoever he’s talking to might help him figure out something crucial.
I recently began listening to “Knuckleheads,” a podcast launched, in 2019, by Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, darlings of the stylish, early-two-thousands N.B.A. The two met as kids, in Illinois, and were handpicked by Jordan to star in a commercial for his shoes—a fact that still astounds them. The show grew out of essays they wrote, for the Players’ Tribune, about adjusting to their rising fame, and listening to it can feel like eavesdropping. The pair often digress into Chicago-high-school-basketball minutiae, memories of seeing palm trees for the first time. Richardson is friendly and gregarious; Miles is shyer, and it’s sometimes hard to hear him at all. If it were any other podcast, I probably would have tuned out. But once Miles gets going, his laugh crackly and warm, you hear how simply talking aloud can be a form of therapy. It’s a reminder that claiming your narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up the hero. It means that you will be free
All Rights Reserved for Hua Hsu