'Why I Walked Away' Throws A Positive Spin On The Players' Tribune Brand

With all due deference to bull-season Pamplona and the final fateful 60 hours of Mardi Gras, there is no more harrowing circumstance in which one might find oneself - or at least no circumstance that wouldn’t prompt Sting to organize a benefit concert - than atop the fourth-floor staircase of an American workplace at the precise moment a “free breakfast in the second-floor kitchen!” email goes company-wide. Moseying downward at a morning pace the other day, I heard what sounded to my delicate ears like a haphazardly syncopated drumline. Next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a NASCAR straightaway. I was Frogger. Only by pressing myself against the railing and screaming I HAVE BODY LICE was I able to avoid contact. Ultimately, I emerged from the chaos with a nervous tic and a distressed sliver of pumpernickel bagel.

I’ve been out of the office loop for more than a decade. Is this how it works everywhere nowadays? Does our collective yen for free foodstuffs override our politeness compact with one another? This actually depressed me. I mean, the fruit platter didn’t even have kiwi.



And yet my faith in humanity was almost immediately restored, by an unlikely subject in an unlikely place. Are y’all familiar with The Players’ Tribune? It’s a new… platform, I suppose, is the word for it… through which athletes can communicate directly with fans - think Twitter, minus the hothead/“admirer” DMs and plus 320 scandal-proof layers of advisory mettle. It counts Derek Jeter as its founding publisher.

The Players’ Tribune is where Tiger Woods published his unfortunate “I have a great sense of humor except when the humor comes at my expense” screed a few months back. Since then, it’s become the go-to place for eminent athletes to air whatever happens to be on their mind the day their handlers put pen to paper (“always roll with the punches,” “being traded is tough but can be as much of an opportunity as you make of it so make a really great opportunity of your opportunities, kids”). It’s also become the most excellent repository of comically overstated titles in the world of publishing. I, for one, can’t wait to get Matt Harvey’s take on the bureaucratic forces that have conspired to stall the adoption of congestion pricing.

But in the last month, the Tribune published by far the most thoughtful take on the challenge baseball faces as it attempts to reverse the trend of losing the most promising young athletes to other sports. Then on Wednesday, it unveiled its most unvarnished video to date, in which former NBA first-round draft pick Larry Sanders shares his reasons for quitting the sport.

The clip, “Why I Walked Away From the NBA,” is one part explanation, one part personal unburdening and zero parts mea culpa. Over the course of nearly five frank minutes, Sanders tells anyone who cares enough to listen why he made the choice that he did. He acknowledges issues with anxiety and depression and details the toll his professional life has imposed on his emotional one.

“I’m a person. I’m a father. I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I’m a painter. I’m a musician… and sometimes I play basketball,” Sanders says at the clip’s outset, before sharing specifics (the name of the hospital where he was treated, for one) about his current state of mind. Later he addresses the inanities of social media, anticipating the types of responses his news might generate as well as the litany of “heck to Betsy, you’re a pro athlete - don’t you realize how great you have it?” rejoinders his pronouncement will prompt. His response, paraphrased: None of the spoils that come with stardom are worth it if it affects your personal relationships or emotional equilibrium.

The video is unlike just about anything we’ve seen from an athlete of Sanders’ caliber - heaven forbid a professional sports-type person should acknowledge anything resembling vulnerability. As such, it registers as one of the most honestly executed pieces of personal branding I’ve seen in a long time. Using the word “branding” might not be the best choice; it implies that Sanders has an ulterior motive, that he’s consciously positioning himself in a very specific way for whatever comes next. But there’s no way around it: the video does brand him, as a flawed, decent, challenged and ultimately well-intentioned being. You know, as one of us.

Intentionally or not, “Why I Walked Away” also contributes mightily to the branding of The Players’ Tribune. Even after the publication of the aforementioned baseball story, the Tribune was perceived as a too-friendly forum for those athletes accomplished and well-behaved enough to make the cut. That concern is always going to persist, as it would (and should) with any athlete-affiliated forum in which highly compensated celebri-jocks have their say without exposing themselves to the tough, probing questions of sports journalists intrepid in their pursuit of the truth and media-room chicken fingers.

But just as “Why I Walked Away” challenges widely held perceptions of Sanders, so too does it challenge notions of what a sorta-media entity like The Players’ Tribune can contribute to the public discourse. On both levels, then, it’s a legitimate revelation.

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