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Tiger Woods Makes Sportswriting Look Hard

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Jason Collins, the first openly gay man to play in North America's four major professional sports leagues, announced his retirement from the National Basketball Association today. Collins, who last played for the Brooklyn Nets, made the announcement in dual posts for Sports Illustrated and the Players' Tribune, Derek Jeter's post-retirement experiment in first-person athlete blogging.

In the Players' Tribune, Collins pens a lengthy piece vividly describing the struggles he faced during his 13-year basketball career, the majority of which he spent not being open about his sexuality. He tells of making up excuses to avoid going to clubs with teammates, fabricating stories of female partners to placate questions about his lackluster dating life, and the alienation he felt from constantly playing a character in public. It's a heartfelt, emotional read -- all the more effective for being the singular voice of an athlete taking full advantage of this unique platform.

It's been less than two months since Jeter launched his publishing project, and in that short time, the Players' Tribune has both met and defied expectations of what it could be. Collins's post demonstrates the value it can add to the already crowded sports-writing space, bringing unadulterated, unfiltered perspectives by athletes whose personal experiences and heightened emotions can be tempered through the objective lens of journalism. Blake Griffin's post relaying his personal interactions with Donald Sterling was hugely effective at showing how the former Los Angeles Clippers owner treated his players like chattel, and why they weren't surprised when the tape of his racist comments came to light. 

Admittedly, some had problems with the end of Griffin's piece. After chronicling his own experiences with Sterling, Griffin concludes with some lengthy praise for his new owner, Steve Ballmer. It's a bit unfair to reduce this section to "Sterling is bad, Ballmer is good," as Deadspin's Diana Moskovitz did; Griffin noted concrete changes, such as putting the staff on permanent contracts, that signal a tangible shift in management philosophy. That said, the lofty language at the end of the piece does paint Ballmer as some sort of righteous savior, rather than a businessman who's always wanted a basketball team to play with. Sentences like, "Top to bottom, everybody just appreciates being appreciated now," certainly don't help.

Unfortunately, outside of Collins's and the majority of Griffin's post, much of the Players' Tribune content has been little more than first-person PR. Particularly its very first article, a strategically timed column by Russell Wilson plugging his charity foundation and its initiative raising money for victims of domestic violence.

While the Players' Tribune's mission statement describes itself as a place where athletes can give their perspectives without real journalists twisting their words, it's also shown how giving athletes control over their own narratives can backfire. Yesterday, Tiger Woods caused a stir with a post excoriating Golf Digest's Dan Jenkins for his piece, "My (Fake) Interview With Tiger." As the article's subtle headline indicates, it's a satirical Q&A with Woods, who is notoriously antagonistic toward the news media. It at times falls flat, but overall is rather amusing. Most of all, it's incredibly harmless. The piece is accompanied by absurd photos of an actor dressed like Woods taking selfies at a diner. There is absolutely no way any rational, literate person could mistake this "interview" for the real thing. 

Which is why Woods's post, "Not True, Not Funny," so laughably fails. The post is part of a new series of columns called "Straight Up," which the Players' Tribune describes as "a place where athletes can offer their side on something that has been written or said about them." Presumably, this is meant to allow athletes to answer criticism and maintain their carefully crafted images. What Woods accomplishes here, however, is to simply point far more people toward the back pages of Golf Digest. Instead of addressing any real questions -- emphasis on "real" -- Woods simply reminds everyone that he takes himself far too seriously. "I like to think I have a good sense of humor," Woods writes, before he spends 600 words disproving his own theory.

A piece by Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams similarly paints its author as needlessly defensive. He takes offense to the notion that a professional basketball player would throw games to help his team get a higher pick in the draft, decided through a lottery system that gives an advantage to teams with poorer records. He blames the media for this false narrative and extolls athletes' "over-the-top competitive" nature.

But as ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Deadspin's Kevin Draper note, Carter-Williams shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what "tanking" actually means. When we talk about a team tanking, we're not accusing players of giving up on the court; we're referring to front offices fielding mediocre squads so as to gather draft picks for the future. This was highly demonstrable last season in Philadelphia, but perhaps it's the lexicon that's tripping up Carter-Williams, who might be less quick to protest if we referred to the practice as "rebuilding." 

We can't be all too surprised that the Players' Tribune so far has been largely a glorified press-release hub, or that leaving athletes to their own lyrical devices isn't always the best idea. When the site first launched, my hope was that it would be a place for the kind of announcement Collins made today, or this breezy letter Brendan Shanahan wrote to his younger self -- posts that needed nothing outside of the player's own words to provide insight into their experiences as professional athletes. Sportswriters who feared the site would threaten their access or their ability to do their jobs can rest easy; if anything, missteps like those by Carter-Williams and Woods provide even more fodder for the press. And perhaps having a place for athletes to produce their own image-conscious content will mean fewer puff pieces in otherwise reputable publications. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net