When Dan Treadway took a handoff of sorts from Colt McCoy, a backup quarterback for the Washington Redskins, it was a joint rewriting of the media playbook. They took it line by line, word by word.
When it was over, McCoy had published a nearly 4,000-word piece on his football life, tracing his journey from a small Texas town to the NFL. Its second act, a recollection of the fateful Rose Bowl game in which the former University of Texas quarterback was injured, revisited the hit that took him from the contest, and the numbness that settled in his throwing arm, the aftershocks, physical or otherwise, he still feels today.
It’s the type of catharsis, Treadway said, that lends itself to the platform. As a deputy editor of The Players’ Tribune, the bespectacled 28-year-old works with athletes to help tell their stories in what is a re-imagining of the traditional model for sports media.
Through a series of phone calls, Treadway worked with McCoy to make the piece publication-ready. Unlike a traditional sports story, it carried the athlete’s byline.
“He really wanted to be able to tell his story with the site,” Treadway said. “When we actually spoke, I was taken aback with how candid and how honest he was.”
Treadway spoke to a group of Penn State students Monday night in the the Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium, sharing how the site grew from a niche concept to a major player in the sports media landscape. The brainchild of former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter, The Players’ Tribune has worked with more than 1,300 athletes since it launched in October 2014, according to Michelle Isaacs, a spokesperson for the business who was also in attendance.
The discussion, “Disrupting Journalism: Athletes, Fans and The Players’ Tribune,” ended day one of Penn State Startup Week, a universitywide showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation that runs through Friday.
John Affleck, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism at Penn State and the director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, moderated the discussion. He was joined by Anne Hoag, the director of the minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, who introduced Treadway and Isaacs to the attendees.
“There’s a lesson for journalism in that if you’re not getting deep enough in getting to the bottom of the story or getting to the bottom of what’s interesting about somebody or some issue,” Affleck said, “someone will step in and begin writing about that.”
The site features in-depth pieces such as former NHL player Daniel Carcillo’s thoughts about battling depression and Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s fight with alcoholism.
But it also has lighter fare. Baltimore Ravens lineman and former Penn State player John Urschel, for instance, has a series of math challenges.
“One thing I hear a lot is ‘athletes are boring’ or ‘athletes are stupid,’ ” Treadway said. “No, athletes are people, who happen to play sports.”
While not true journalism, Affleck said, the site publishes content that has found traction with both fans and advertisers. Because of its model, athletes may feel more comfortable being introspective and open. It helps that they have final say.
But, from a business standpoint, it works. According to Treadway, the site gets an average of five minutes on a page, a rarity in the era of clickbait.
“I’m not after someone’s eyeballs with a catchy headline, that’s not the game we play,” Treadway said. “But one we thing we try to do really well is write compelling stories.”
Toward the end of the event, Treadway took questions from the crowd. One student asked about which stories do the best in terms of readership, and how to find them.
As with McCoy, Treadway went deep.
“It’s having the patience to find the right ones,” he said.