Jaymee Messler

For the Love of the Game

Air Date: February 27, 2016

Jaymee Messler, president of The Players’ Tribune, talks about giving voice to athletes.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Perhaps there’s no realm of contemporary society more exhilarating than professional athletics. As we’ve interrogated the idea of comedy on this broadcast, we turn our attention today to The Players’ Tribune. Founded by future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, the Tribune is his post-pinstripes publication of first-person stories directly from the voice of athletes. “I do think fans deserve more than ‘no comment’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Those simple answers have always stemmed from a genuine concern that any statement, opinion, or detail might be distorted, and he means by reporters.” Jeter wrote this in the inaugural essay of The Players’ Tribune. And today joining me is Jeter’s co-founder and collaborator, president of The Players’ Tribune, Jaymee Messler. She’s spearheading the production alongside contributing editors Russell Wilson, Kobe Bryant, and Danica Patrick, defying expectations of all glitz, the result has impressed this reader. Meaty explication of sport, its collision with race and gender, capitalism and democracy, anchor this forum of dedicated athlete-journalists. It’s admirable and compelling. So now I want to ask Jaymee about the next phase of the website and whether the Tribune aspires not only to have its pulse on the individual narratives of these athletes but also to provide an honest autopsy, if you will, of the major issues at stake in professional sports. Welcome.

MESSLER: Thank you, thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: So talk to us about this website.

MESSLER: Well so as you said we started this, I started this with Derek, it’s been a project that we’ve been working on for about three years. Um, leading up to I think once he decided that he wanted to retire. It became very obvious that it would be a great time to launch something like this, and to become a priority and a focus for his post-career.

Um, I think living in New York City, in a market like this for twenty years and as you said, um, probably living by ‘no comment’ – ‘I don’t know’-type of um, relationship with the beat writers in some regard, I think it became really obvious that the relationship with the media and athletes wasn’t what it used to be. I think the, the space is very crowded, the media space, and I think that this became something that if we could help empower athletes to be able to control their narrative and know that everything that they said and want to say is exactly what was being communicated to their fans, that it would almost be a stress reliever in a lot of ways for athletes as they continue to play on the court, on the field, on the court. Um, so this became a priority and he announced it actually the day after his last game last year and over this past year we’ve had over 450 athletes contribute over 800 pieces and I think we’ve really evolved into not only being a place where athletes can set the record straight or create a stress or, you know, a stress-free environment, um, while they’re playing but I think it’s become a place where athletes are sharing things that may not have been shared otherwise because their guard is down. There is such a trust, you know, they’re the ones that are really editing and collaborating with our editors and writing these pieces and nothing ever goes up on the site without their final approval.

HEFFNER: For the love of the game, right?

MESSLER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: I wonder because Derek was so decisive, as we were saying off-camera, in knowing this was his next professional pursuit. What do you think from that experience on the New York Yankees led him to see that there was this void?

MESSLER: Being in New York for 20 years, it, you had to almost be purposeful in your actions, your behavior, your statements, to be able to live without being a headline every day. And so, I think as a result not as many people probably knew his personality or the multi-dimensions that most athletes have beyond their performance on the field. And so to be able to allow fans the opportunity to see who athletes are, the, the multi-dimensions that they have, their personalities, their off the field, off the court, um, I think that became really important for him and I think as, I mean the landscape in general right now is a place where there’s plenty, there’s a lot of eyeballs and there’s a lot out there, a lot of content. And so yeah, it’s a very competitive market, a competitive space to be in, but I think we found a niche with giving athletes their own voice and having that first person and almost going back to the days where reporters and athletes used to speak and work together, right? And want to make each other look good. I think…

HEFFNER: That’s the critical point,

MESSLER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: That I want to ask you about. Working collaboratively. Because it strikes me that the athletes themselves are poised to be the most respected, potentially, investigators of the sport, defenders of the sport, champions of the sport, and of the fans. True?

MESSLER: Yeah, absolutely. For athletes to be able to speak, I mean no one can speak better to their sport than an athlete, so we’ll never have talking heads, so to speak, on the site, I think it’ll always be either athlete voices or people maybe representing the fan, like we have Ben Lyons who’s our chief correspondent. But when you see articles like Paul Pierce breaking down the five toughest guards, those are, those are things that fans really get excited about reading, things that happen really on the court, you know, that I’m not sure traditional media is necessarily looking at. We’re not, we’re not necessarily chasing stories and looking, we’re not gonna have stats and scores, we’re really driving conversation in a lot of ways and I think to your earlier point, it’s helping the relationship again between reporters and athletes, some of our stories, because I think when the athletes are writing things that they care about and some of the beat writers and the reporters are asked, actually asking them questions based on those stories, they’re getting a much better reaction and a much better response and a better dialogue, and they see these athletes every day. So I think it almost has an opportunity to make those relationships better because I think that’s where some of this has gotten broken, you know, that the reporters are, it’s because it’s such a competitive landscape, they are chasing headlines in a lot of situations. And for them to maybe ask questions that the athletes care a little bit more about may help them get better responses generally.

HEFFNER: You’ve been called, and I think it’s accurate, a New Yorker for sports in terms of narrative first-person journalism, but how do you get your readers to trust that you folks don’t have any ulterior motive here?

MESSLER: Well I think we’ve done a good job in this first year of great, of getting that credibility. It’s taken us a little while, I think we had a target on our back in the beginning, like who are we, where are we trying to fit? And we’re not trying to compete with the media. We, we feel that we complement it. And so, I think having stories that we’ve, we’ve had some very light stories but we’ve also had some very compelling ones. When you see someone like Daniel Carcillo talking about his best friend who committed suicide, he was playing on, Steve Montador who played on the Flyers,…there’s not a program in, that had set up Steve for when he stopped playing hockey and as a result I think he was also dealing with concussions. He ended up committing suicide and for Daniel, he want—he called us to talk about how we can create change, how can we create transition programs for athletes so that they’re not dealing with these types of situations? And so when you start having athletes talking about these real issues, um, I think that it becomes clear that we’re not a vanity site, we’re not trying to control a message. The only difference is, just like writers have their say and their perspective which we often appreciate and respect, the athletes should be given theirs as well.

HEFFNER: Do you want to drive consensus in terms of the direction when there are issues at stake? To name a few, concussions across sports, uh, and the precedent that that has set for a new generation that has been concussed and is now facing a lot of ment …mental, physical ailments as a result of that. So the concussion issue comes to mind. This is a trillion dollar industry, essentially a country. And I, I do wonder when it, when it comes to these moral issues in sports if you and Derek see this as a vehicle to build not only understanding but also the direction forward?

MESSLER: I think that’s one of the most important points here because when you start talking about social issues and controversial issues, it’s incredibly hard for an athlete, especially a current athlete, to really speak to them. And not know how the headline’s going to be, how the words will potentially be changed around. And so to give an athlete a place where they can speak to some of these issues and know a hundred percent that it’s exactly what they mean to say, will empower them to be able to do so and will allow us to be able to talk about these topics. You know, we’re working on creating round table conversations and live conversations between athletes, whether it’s retired or current, um, and giving them this forum to address topics like concussion, like transition, you know, like the social issues that are going on today and I think this is a really important place in something that our team is very focused on right now in thinking about how we can do it in a way that’s gonna help the conversation drive more impact and create hopefully some change.

HEFFNER: So how do you do that?

MESSLER: Well I think it starts with, we have an amazing editorial team. Um, Gary Honeig who launched ESPN the Magazine is our Editorial Director. We have about ten to twelve people on the editorial team that really care about what we’re doing and we work closely with the athletes, I mean people like Kobe and Blake Griffin and Paul Pierce and so many others that really care about what we’re doing talk to us a lot about it, I mean Blake Griffin wrote about racism in his first piece a year ago. Um, Russell Wilson talked about domestic violence. And I think it already is creating a place for them to be able to take their guard down and talk honestly and now we’re thinking about, we did our first round table about a month ago at Derek’s foundation, his Turn 2 Foundation event about transition. Um, Michael Strahan hosted it, we had Swin Cash and Derek and Derek Fisher and I think starting to launch more of those type of programming, having round table, having Q&A series with some of our athletes and really being able to talk openly about these topics is something that’s a huge priority.

HEFFNER: The urgency of creating that climate seemed to be a very strong motivating factor for Derek.

MESSLER: Absolutely, I think that’s a major, I mean again it goes back to if you have trust and you’re able to speak openly then it can be, then not everything that we’re going to do is going to be serious. I think a lot of the articles that we started with have been more serious and more compelling but partly because we did want to establish that brand and that opportunity in that void for where athletes can speak openly and that is something that’s a priority for Derek as well as our entire company.

Um, but we needed to establish that and that’s something that we’re launching a podcast network also which will create a great forum for athletes to be able to speak about topics, um, and starting to bring in more reliable contributors, some athletes as well as other, like I said, Ben Lyons and people that really represent the fan and start to create dialogue.

HEFFNER: I was going to ask you, is this is a deterrent in terms of avoiding the next scandal? It seems to me with, by showing your true colors, by talking about steroids, concussions, um, there is a more harmonious climate that can ensue.

MESSLER: I mean absolutely, that, that’s a goal, right? That’s an opportunity here where I think that those are the kind of things that I think we look towards to see how we can create and a lot of teams a … athletes just don’t feel like they can speak about some of these topics.

HEFFNER: And the leagues, and the leagues don’t condone it.

MESSLER: They don’t but I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and a lot of positive reaction because at the end of the day, our agenda is the athletes’ agenda. We don’t have an ulterior motive. We want the athletes to feel comfortable and, and if they’re comfortable with what they’re saying, ultimately it makes them look good, there’s an authenticity to it, the fans are connecting to them and the, the leagues ultimately look good. Yes, there’s gonna be, there’s gonna be times when we speak about things that are more controversial. Right now we’re very much like Switzerland, we don’t have big media deals and we’ve slowly been bringing brands into this site, we have a very clean site with not a lot of promises that we have with partners, so we’re in a good place where we can really do things and create the momentum, create the guidelines on how we want to address certain things and listen, we’re still a very new platform and so just like we, we don’t look at all like we did a year ago, we probably won’t look like this a year from now but we want to figure it out with people like Derek is helping drive this, this platform with people, like I said, Kobe and the, and the team that we have around us. Kevin Durant who is such a young player in the league, and also so thoughtful. I think having this community of athletes working together is really powerful, and having them care about this platform will help us dictate. And it’s going to be hard, I think, for, for the people in different industries, or different leagues, or other media platforms, I think, and ultimately we want to complement that, and I think if the athletes are driving it, it will help how we, how we look at that.

HEFFNER: These players off the field, um … can speak to more than why or how they made a play. I mean, it strikes me that that is the question that every sports anchor is asking at the end of the game. None of the real-time sports journalism is dedicated to what you are invested in.

MESSLER: Absolutely. And that’s exactly where I think we fill a nice void. And that’s also what the athletes get passionate about. So, them being excited about talking about these issues and, or the things that, that are just their interest, right? It doesn’t always have to be something that’s controversial. But having them open up and be passionate—I think some of the best feedback we’ve gotten from the athletes is that they very often get negative interaction from fans on Twitter and Facebook when they say things that are very day-to-day. And a lot of times when they’re posting in the Tribune that really give another insight to, whether it’s something on the, on the field and on the court, or off of it, I think fans have just reacted so positively to it that it makes the athletes feel really good. And so, in return, they’re coming back, and that’s why we really call it a community of athletes that are helping build this company.

HEFFNER: The idea of the site grows out of this mission to be honest, um, and sometimes it gets ugly, um, so, I—going back to that originally prompt of investigative journalism: are you willing to have these athletes come clean about aspects of their performance, or aspects of the league’s? The thing that comes to mind to me most immediately is a story that was reported that the Department of Defense paid the NFL for all of those celebratory festivities at the beginning of games. They, they actually paid for a good amount of, um, the, the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Um, it seemed to me that that struck a phony chord, and is inconsistent with the authenticity that you preach. Now, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that story, but the basic premise is that fans expect, if there’s a ceremonial first pitch, or if there’s a marine, that they’re not being paid, they’re doing that out of a love for their country and the game.

MESSLER: I mean … I think that’s why The Players’ Tribune really offers that level of authenticity. I mean, right now, there’s nothing that’s driving any conversation, except what the athlete wants to speak about. We didn’t know David Ortiz wanted to talk about steroids when he wrote on The Players’ Tribune, um, what he had gone through over the last ten years. We, this is really what the athletes want to talk about, and there’s zero agenda. So, again this, I think that’s why fans really like what we’re putting up there, because it is that authentic, and there is no layer of, “What is the ulterior motive here,” except for something that the athletes really want to share.

HEFFNER: But, to, to your mind, is that a, a story that you would pursue?

MESSLER: I don’t see why not. If someone wanted to talk about it, that’s my point, that it’s what the athletes really want to talk about. I mean we, we do sit, we, we talk about what’s happening in the news, and I think, as we look at 2016, we want to start diversifying our content and creating more things that are newsworthy and topical. I think, to-date, we do cover things that are newsworthy, you know, the women’s national team winning the championship. Um, you know, covering news events and live things, especially when it’s from the athlete’s voice. But we, we want to do a better job of being able to not only drive conversation, but be a part of the news. And so, taking on issues like that, to me, that would be an amazing topic to feature in a roundtable, and have the athletes talking about it. And we absolutely want to, and we want to be a part of it.

But that comes to what we have to start, I mean, we just finished our second rounds of financing. We’re building quickly, and we’re fortunate to have built this brand where people do associate the Tribune with the authentic voice of the athlete. It’s, in one year, I think that’s a lot to accomplish. So, now, I think, we want to start thinking about how we can cover news topics like that, and how athletes can talk about it. I mean, Jose Bautista talked about the bat flip, which was a controversial play. It’s not exactly the same thing but, we want, we want the athletes to be able to talk about it and be honest, and there shouldn’t be anything that’s off the table.

HEFFNER: What about the stories that they don’t want on the table? What, what is the place for them? How do you get to critical investigate journalism beyond the soundbite and tabloid?

MESSLER: Well, I think that comes into, again, how we’re starting to diversify our content. Where does that live, right? Is it through our podcast network, where people are able to talk at, for a while, about certain issues … I can envision probably more retired athletes addressing certain topics. It’s sometimes harder for an athlete that’s playing. Um, so we add one more layer that helps them be a little more open. But, at the same time, it has to be something that’s not going to affect them. They still have to talk to the media every day. And so we don’t want to create an environment where then they have deal with it every day and it becomes worse.

HEFFNER: Do you think the sports community that you represent at this point, um, is gender-assignment and preference blind?

MESSLER: I think it’s in a much better place than it ever was. I mean Jason Collins announced his retirement, um, on the site, and so many athletes are a part of, I feel like, the fabric of who he is, and supportive, and you’re seeing so many more people that are, that are able to be more open, and it’s so encouraging, and I think, I mean, I, I don’t think you could look at the world through rose-colored glasses and just say that everything, that would be naïve. Um, but I think that, and, and, and having a place where athletes can just talk openly, I just think inspires and, and almost helps other athletes be able to appreciate that and understand that.

‘Cause that’s when you get the most positive reactions. I mean, we did such a great piece, I think, it was a POV with the New York Liberty, and Swin Cash and Essence Carson, um, talked about sexuality and gender issues that the WNBA deal with on a day-to-day basis and, I think having more conversations like that, and knowing that, for them, they were able to feel comfortable talking about it, ‘cause they know that nothing was going to get twisted. And they, they produced the piece with us. Um, and I want to see more of that on the site. I think it’s very helpful to create that dialogue with that community.

HEFFNER: You’re a veteran of the industry, before launching this with Derek, you were involved in sports agency. What do you most want to convey?

MESSLER: Well, to be honest, it’s really what-, I want to see athletes really be excited and to be able to show their personality and not just, you know, they’re not motivated like actors and actresses that have to speak to the media about record sales and television shows and movies. And so, you know, I worked on the marketing side and the branding side, and I think a lot of athletes want to do things off of the court. Right, they want to create brands and do … whether it’s endorsement deals and commercials or new businesses. And I think it’s hard, because in order to build that brand and audience, you need to be out there, you need to speak to the media. And if you feel like you can’t, it’s, it’s hurtful. And so, being able to do that, giving athlete’s a platform to share whatever they want to share, but build their brand. Create video content. We want to be a toolbox for athletes. Seeing Kevin Durant taking photos and putting up a photo gallery. That may not be on ESPN or more traditional me-, media outlets, um probably wouldn’t be looking for that, but it, it opens up for him a personality and an excitement.

And for me, that’s really important and exciting. To see athletes show their passions, um, and be able to do things and learn different crafts with them, and ultimately, do what they may want to do. I mean, athletes’ careers end when most of us are just, you know, we’re in the prime, right? So, a lot of athletes end their playing career, they’re 35 years old, on the high-end. And there’s so much opportunity for them. And so, I think, looking at us, also, as a toolbox for athletes to learn another craft, whether it’s hosting a radio show on Sirius, or, or being able to do the podcast, or video shows, or producing. We have, Steve Nash is producing a video show with us right now. I think it’s great for them, to give them the tools to learn another craft, and start thinking about another career.

HEFFNER: Finally, I, I don’t want to reveal ages here, but, Jerry Maguire, uh, I don’t know if you were in the industry, learning to be in the industry, when that film was released. Uh, either way, for our viewers who will obviously IMDB that movie who, who don’t know the film, but is that an accurate representation of how this all works, still?

MESSLER: Um, it’s interesting, I mean, it, it, Jerry Maguire was based on a very big sports management company. I think there’s very, a lot of similarities in that movie and the way the sports agency world works. It’s obviously, um, an exaggeration. Um, but I do think there’s a lot of similarities, and I think that, today, though, that was 20 years ago. And I was at the very beginning of my career, [LAUGHS], thank you for pointing that out. Um, but I do think it’s evolved so much.

There’s so much—listen, fans hold up so much to athletes. They’re iconic. And, they—

HEFFNER: What’s the biggest difference since that film?

MESSLER: Well, I think there’s a lot more relationship between good managers and athletes, and thinking about their career holistically. And, in a 360 … if you’re a good agent and a good manager, and I’ve had great experiences with that, you’re caring about the athlete’s playing career as well as their post-playing career. And I think it’s important for it to be just as meaningful and dignified and I think, in story, in movies like Jerry Maguire, it was very much about the dollars and the money. And I think there’s, there’s a lot more humanity, hopefully, in a lot of the great agencies.

HEFFNER: Show me something more than the money is the The Players’ Tribune. Jaymee, thank you for joining me, today, on The Open Mind.

MESSLER: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.