During an otherwise inconsequential regular season game in March 2009, then-Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva did something unusual.
He posted the following tweet from the locker room at halftime.
In da locker room, snuck to post my twitt. We're playing the Celtics, tie ball game at da half. Coach wants more toughness. I gotta step up.
— Charlie Villanueva (@CVBelieve) March 15, 2009
The ensuing media coverage of this apparent indiscretion is pure comedy when you read it now, through the lens of the exponentially expanding digital landscape. The Associated Press story explained what a “tweet” was — “a message posted to his Twitter feed,” in case you didn’t know — and defined what, exactly, Twitter was all about.
“Twitter,” the story explained, “allows users to send short, text message-style notes to a mass audience and is rising in popularity among athletes, politicians and celebrities.”
You don’t say!
“I could have never predicted it, just like I never could have predicted the existence and popularity of Snapchat today,” commissioner Adam Silver told CBS Sports. “Lesson learned for the league. Twitter was a relatively new platform and it hadn’t occurred to us that we needed to put in place rules on tweeting during a game.”
Fast-forward seven years, and the expansion of digital media platforms has changed the NBA forever, and changed the game for its global superstars. In the time it took LeBron James to go from Cleveland to Miami and back again — the blink of an eye, in basketball years — players have embraced the ever-expanding platforms available to them to communicate with fans.
What started as a journeyman player tweeting from the locker room has spawned a cottage industry of social media channels, blogs, podcasts, production companies and even the athletes’ very own digital content company, The Players’ Tribune. Launched 18 months ago by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, the outlet was conceived as a safe haven for athletes to express opinions, provide behind-the-scenes access and control the message with their own voices.
“I just feel like when you read a Players’ Tribune story, you can almost read it in the player’s voice — that it’s 100 percent them, 100 percent their words and their insights and thoughts about the game or whatever the topic is,” Kevin Durant, deputy publisher of The Players’ Tribune, told CBS Sports.
“You get total control over every single part of the article and what comes out,” Durant said. “I think players are gravitating towards that a little bit more because it’s 100 percent your voice.”
Unlike Charles Barkley, who famously claimed to have been misquoted in his own autobiography, athletes who embrace these new media platforms also are embracing the responsibilities that come with not just being the subjects of content, but also the creators. As with post moves and pick-and-roll defense, some are better at it than others.
“I know what I want out there, I know how I feel, and I’m a guy who doesn’t speak without knowledge,” James told CBS Sports. “You always have to be conscious of what you type, because once you hit send, then it’s out there for the rest of your life. You’ve got to be conscious about that and you don’t ever want to do that irrationally.”
In early 2015, James and longtime friend Maverick Carter created Uninterrupted, which touts itself as “a go-to source for premium, authentic and unfiltered sports lifestyle content,” according to a press release. Athletes such as Rob Gronkowski, Odell Beckham, Jr., Victor Cruz, Ronda Rousey, Draymond Green and NBA players who share representation with James through agent Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group have contributed content to the venture.
Uninterrupted has entered content distribution arrangements with Bleacher Report, Verizon, Facebook and others and is focused on video content, documentaries and entertainment. Rousey recently posted a series of videos around her appearance on Saturday Night Live. Green posted one in which he said he wasn’t mad at fans for not voting him into the Western Conference starting lineup for the All-Star Game. James thanked fans for voting him in.
“It means everything for me for the simple fact that it’s given other athletes another platform to allow them to connect with their fans on a more personal level,” James said. “You’ve got good fans that love you, you’ve got bad fans that maybe don’t love you, but they want to hear what you’re doing and how you’re getting better, how you do your craft, what’s your view on certain topics. And for me to have a platform like Uninterrupted that allows myself and my other athletes who are a part of it to give fans a little bit more in depth, I think that’s pretty cool.”
In an ever-expanding media landscape, the modern athlete no longer has to worry about the old newspaper axiom, “Don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Ink is now bandwidth, and everyone — from global superstars to bloggers and fans — has access to it.
“I wrote a blog post about that 10 years ago saying that’s what was going to happen,” Dallas Mavericks owned Mark Cuban told CBS Sports. “We don’t need traditional media anymore with the way social media and blogs are going. Whether a guy writes his own blog or uses Players’ Tribune or whatever, why wouldn’t they?”
Cuban, 57, is the NBA’s most outspoken owner and by far the most active and accessible on social media and a variety of electronic communication — especially the startup messaging app he funded, Cyber Dust.
“In the media, there’s a race to get out there first,” Cuban said. “It’s not like 20 years ago, when it was like, ‘OK, let’s just do something qualitative and we’ll sit down and do a full-blown story, a la the New York Times or Sports Illustrated.’ Those days are gone. They’re aberrational when they happen. And if that’s the case, why wouldn’t you try to control your own message?”
Control is a key benefit that several players who spoke with CBS Sports about their media strategies cited over and over. Whether it was National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts decrying media access in the locker room, or Durant chiding reporters for treating Kobe Bryant poorly or lacking knowledge about him or his team — “You guys really don’t know [expletive],” he said — there’s an undercurrent of distrust between athletes and traditional media that has helped spawn this new wave of content driven and controlled by the athletes themselves.
Durant’s screed during 2015 All-Star weekend in New York typified the growing tension in the athlete-media dynamic, a condition that Silver’s league office is monitoring and trying to smooth.
“To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to,” said Durant, citing the league’s media access policies that require players to be available to reporters on a regular basis. “So I don’t really care. Y’all are not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next. That’s a part of it. So I just learn to deal with y’all.”
Under intense media scrutiny with his free agency looming next summer, Durant saw the need to clarify earlier this month that he doesn’t, in fact, hate the media.
Which is good, since he’s now very much a part of it.
“I actually do love you guys,” he said.
The difference is, when Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or Bryant writes a piece for The Players’ Tribune, there are no love-hate relationships to navigate — just an unexpurgated love-fest in which the athlete, often with help from a publicist or ghost writer, gets to control the words and how and when they’re delivered.
“There’s help for being able to express it the right way,” Griffin told CBS Sports. “I think the cool thing is, I can just take a moment, say exactly what I want to say and be done with it — instead of maybe getting my words mixed around a little bit and not getting exactly what I want out there.
“Once you say it, you’ve literally said it,” Griffin said. “So you do have to be careful, but that’s what people are there for.”
“We have people there to help us make sure that what we’re saying is what we really want to say,” Griffin said.
Griffin spoke with CBS Sports about this topic before he became ensnared in his current pubic relations nightmare. Last weekend in Toronto, he punched the Clippers’ assistant equipment manager, a close friend of his, and broke his hand. He had surgery and the Clippers are saying he could be out two months. As of yet, no word from The Players’ Tribune on Griffin’s misstep.
Before that, one of Griffin’s pieces on Players’ Tribune — an essay on his odd relationship with deposed Clippers owner Donald Sterling — was a seminal moment for the outlet. It went straight to the desktop of the commissioner who’d banned Sterling for life over bigoted public comments.
“I read his first-person account of his relationship with Donald Sterling on Players’ Tribune just like everyone else did,” Silver said. “Personally, I found it fascinating.”
Silver, who took over for David Stern in 2014, has burnished a reputation as an open-minded, forward-thinking leader. Though he and Stern were blindsided by that tweet heard ’round NBA headquarters from Villanueva, Silver has encouraged players to be involved and active on social media and other avenues, to the extent they’re comfortable. During the annual rookie transition program, tables are set up where players can have their various social media accounts authenticated.
“There’s no doubt [there’s] an enormous appetite to get a player’s point of view unfiltered,” Silver said. “Just by looking at the number of credentialed media and the volume of stories written about the NBA, what the data are telling us is, in no way is it diminishing interest in third-party news stories written about our players or video features on our players. We think it’s very much additive and adds to the larger conversation about the NBA. So the league has embraced it and our players have embraced it.”
Again, some better than others. Just run a Google image search for “J.R. Smith tweet.” (NSFW)
“A player has the right always to say what’s on his mind — of course, with the limitations that we all know with respect to discussion about officiating and some other subjects,” Silver said. “My personal view is I’m very pro-transparency and authenticity on the part of the players. I think today’s society requires that, and I encourage our players, within the context of the appropriate boundaries of civility, to speak their mind.”
Depending on your point of view, sometimes NBA players’ social media interactions are insightful and fascinating, and other times they get ridiculous; that’s the nature of social media. The infamous string of emoji tweets from players involved in the free-agent recruitment of DeAndre Jordan last summer spoke to just how much bandwidth and freedom players have carved out for themselves.
“When we give an interview to you guys, generally speaking, you guys control the interview,” Clippers guard J.J. Redick told CBS Sports. “You control the narrative. And so I do think it’s important that athletes kind of have their own voice. Now, granted, some of that is ghost writers, and I get that. But from what I understand, with Players’ Tribune and things of that nature, the athletes are getting editorial control with that.”
As the world has gotten smaller, the media opportunities for NBA players not in the top-tier of global celebrity have grown. Redick, who has never been an All-Star during his 10-year career, recently agreed to a deal to host a weekly podcast on Yahoo Sports. He is the first active NBA player to do so.
Silver, who sought to fortify competitive balance in the most recent collective bargaining agreement he negotiated with the union, said the proliferation of media platforms for players also has helped diminish the long-held advantage for cities with outsized traditional media audiences.
“It’s had an incredibly positive impact on the movement of players in this league because it’s helped make this more of a 30-team league,” Silver said. “Players now have that whole global social media platform, regardless of the size of the market they play in. It’s leveled the playing field for our markets.”
It’s also changed the dynamics for traditional news outlets, such as this one, that cover the NBA. Since 2009, the size or reach of your airwaves has become less important than your social media audience when it comes to breaking news and delivering timely opinion. Now, the players have begun to push it further by breaking news themselves.
Love announced his decision to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent last summer in an essay on Players’ Tribune, which is affiliated with Love’s representation agency, Excel Sports Management. This season, Bryant — who is not an Excel client — used the platform to announce his intention to retire after the season. It drew so much traffic that it broke the Players’ Tribune server.
When it came time for James to announce his 2014 free-agent decision, he went the more traditional route — collaborating with Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins on an essay that explained why he was leaving Miami after four years and returning to Cleveland.
“You can control the platform any time you want to,” James said. “I hope that the guys continue to use the platform of Uninterrupted and things of that nature, but I also hope they don’t get away from the daily routine of what we have to give to you guys every single day. It’s up to them to put out what they want.”
James’ Uninterrupted, which recently scored a $15.8 million investment from Warner Bros. Entertainment and Turner Sports, views itself as having an entirely different purpose and mission from The Players’ Tribune. Whereas the latter has positioned itself as a competitor to traditional news outlets, Uninterrupted views itself simply as a purveyor of “rich content,” a person involved in the venture said. Its latest project, a sports-themed original comedy to be released in the spring on go90, a mobile-first platform, falls into that bucket where athletes and entertainment often meet.
Indeed, despite his vast business and media interests, James remains one of the most accessible pro athletes of his era, often briefing reporters twice on game days and providing additional access when the topic and circumstances appeal to him. Neither James nor his advisors view Uninterrupted as a way to go backdoor on traditional media; they view it as complementary.
But a couple of recent examples illustrate how blurred the line between news and entertainment has become. Giants receiver Victor Cruz announced in a video clip on Uninterrupted that he was having season-ending surgery in November; the Giants were furious. And a series of videos about a bet between James and Green on the Ohio State-Michigan State football game in November — an interaction that was packaged and presented as completely organic — actually was cooked up by Uninterrupted’s creative team, which proposed the idea to both players.
Is it still news when it’s been staged? Silver said it’s up to the marketplace to sort it all out.
“To the extent that anything that a player creates and distributes to fans lacks authenticity, that can be measured directly in clicks,” Silver said. “The consumer and fans are sophisticated and they respond to good, robust content. And to the extent something is pre-packaged, like with other forms of content on the Internet, it doesn’t get picked up.”
Silver operates in both worlds. In November 2014, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for the legalization of sports gambling. Earlier that year, he granted broad access to Jenkins of Sports Illustrated for a cover story on his tumultuous early days as commissioner, marked by the Sterling fiasco.
In June 2015, he sat down with Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum for a Players’ Tribune Q&A. Only the most hopeless curmudgeon would have any problem with such an interview, in which Silver revealed his favorite Jay Z lyric. (A question, admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have asked.)
For his part, McCollum has since launched a journalism enrichment program at a Portland area high school. The 24-year-old has a journalism degree from Lehigh, covered the NBA Finals as a video host for Facebook and hosts a weekly radio show in Portland, according to the Oregonian.
“In the same way that the media wants to get their stories out, I think the players appreciate the coverage and realize that it’s part and parcel with the growth of the league,” Silver said. “If anything, I get far more complaints from players about stories that aren’t being written than stories that are being written. It’s usually a player saying, ‘Why isn’t the media paying attention to the fact that I’m accomplishing the following things or I have these interests off the floor?’ And I think it’s often why they turn to the outlets they have, like Players’ Tribune or Uninterrupted, and can talk directly to their fan base.”
On a recent post-blizzard day in New York, across town from the Players’ Tribune offices, Durant practiced with the Thunder at Basketball City in downtown Manhattan. MVP, All-Star, Olympian, shoe peddler, erstwhile movie actor, prospective free agent and global icon, Durant now counts among his titles “author and media executive.” The fact that it doesn’t even strike him as an accomplishment speaks volumes about how far pro athletes have come — how much power, control and responsibility they’ve secured.
Despite his sometimes chilly relationship with the media, Durant was thoughtful, engaging and quotable during a nine-minute session with a group of reporters. Afterward, he spent six more minutes with me, discussing topics that we both found interesting and that I would write about — including this one.
Who knows? Maybe he’ll write about it, too. There’s certainly nothing stopping him.
“When you have total control as an athlete, that’s what you want,” he said. “You want total control over your life and what goes out about you. And knowing that you have that type of power, it only helps you.”
Credit: Ken Berger, CBS Sports