Playing For Profit: Shannon Sharpe might just have changed sports journalism

Shannon Sharpe and Julio Jones could very likely have changed the way rumors spread in professional sports, forever. In case you haven’t heard by now, the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Jones is not happy with the franchise. The 10-year NFL veteran has spent his entire career in Atlanta, Ga., but rumors have circulated this entire offseason that Jones is looking to move to a championship contender. 

With speculation swirling for months, it seemed as if we’d never really know what was true, what was false and what Jones really wanted. That was until Shannon Sharpe stepped in. The Hall of Fame tight end and current co-host of Fox Sports’ “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed” called Jones on-air with his co-host Skip Bayless Monday to ask him if he really wanted to leave Atlanta.

Eliminating media speculation, leaks from agents and gossip from team executives, Sharpe spoke directly to the source in an unedited, unfiltered conversation about Jones’ career plans. The conversation was so casual, Sharpe and Jones even joked about ruling out the Dallas Cowboys as a potential destination because Jones wants to “win.” 

Cutting out the “middle” man, or woman, in these situations can change how athletes use members of the media. When an athlete expresses a desire to leave their current team, the information or “scoop” is usually linked to a reporter or TV host like Sharpe by any of the numerous parties involved. For various reasons, an agent, team executive or player could be motivated to leak rumors of unhappiness to the public. The situation itself is not unique. 

What is unique, however, is Sharpe and Jones’ decision to eliminate the leaks, rumors and inside information and discuss everything on live television. And yes, Jones was absolutely in on this. No producer would allow Sharpe to cold call Jones on air without Jones’ consent. Not only is it technically illegal in California, but it would ruin Sharpe’s reputation within the community of professional athletes. 

Long story short, Jones decided to use Sharpe’s show to say what he needed to say. Jones publicly said “I’m out of there,” to Sharpe when he was asked about potentially staying in Atlanta on the call. It doesn’t get more straightforward than that. 

Jones’ strategy of speaking directly to fans is becoming more common. Athletes are fed up with the media’s tendency to escalate situations, take quotes out of context and chase headlines. Instead of rolling the dice and giving information to reporters, who can in turn spin the information any way they choose, athletes are instead creating their own content and delivering their own “scoops.”

Now more than ever, athletes are at the front of their own stories. Sharpe’s decision to simply pick up the phone and speak directly to the source clarified the situation, which allowed Jones to say his side of the story and generated a massive amount of buzz on social media. The rumor was addressed, confirmed directly and everyone got clarity on the situation. 

There’s a good chance Jones just laid the blueprint for every other athlete who’s trying to figure out how to communicate what they feel without risking their words being twisted by the media.

Pioneered by LeBron James’ nationally televised free-agency hour-long special “The Decision” in 2010, athletes are starting to realize they can break news themselves. Gone are the days where an athlete needs a member of the media to get a specific story out there or create a certain narrative in the athlete’s favor. 

Athletes like James are creating their own platforms to control their own narratives. James created Uninterrupted, a brand where athletes like him can speak directly to a camera, clarifying any twists or turning points in their career, without having to ask a reporter to do it. 

Former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter created “The Players’ Tribune” in 2014, a platform where athletes write their own stories under their own byline. Kobe Bryant used the Tribune to announce his retirement from the NBA in 2015.  

It’s not just the free agency, trade and retirement announcements that athletes are seizing control over. It’s everything. 

Athletes are live-streaming themselves playing video games, casually talking about non-sports -related topics with fans regularly. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer makes “behind the scenes” vlogs where he thoroughly explains his thought process before, during and after games.

Who wants to listen to a reporter vaguely summarize information when you can hear directly from Jones, James and Bauer themselves? 

The point being made here is sports media companies like ESPN, NFL Network and The Athletic as well as the reporters who work for them are going to be made increasingly obsolete if athletes continue to deliver breaking news directly to sports fans. “Insiders” in sports are in the business of getting as many scoops of information as possible. If these scoops stop coming in, serious changes will have to be made to the way these companies operate. 

How these insiders pivot and remain relevant will be intriguing. Will professional athletes start announcing their decisions live on ESPN, college-style with a table and three hats to choose from? 

All I know is that when athletes see how Jones was able to take control of his own narrative and combat misinformation, their patience for “insiders” and the game they play is going to diminish, quickly.  

David Ramirez is a rising senior writing about the intersection of sports and business. He is also an associate managing editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Playing for Profit” runs every other Wednesday.