The NBA is the most player friendly professional sports league as evidenced by the power they wield to get what they want.
The NFL is seeing a power shift from the owners to the players thanks to NBA players demonstrating the power the players hold with fans and sponsors.
Even down to the college ranks, players recognize their value to organizations and how they can leverage their power for better treatment.
When Did the Player Empowerment Movement Begin?
Like everything else in the NBA for the past 15 years it starts with LeBron James. We know the story. Phenom in Cleveland that elevated his team, takes his talent to South Beach to form the team Cleveland failed to, return of the king to Cleveland once they built a team for him, now in Los Angeles with another team he built for himself. LeBron became more and more powerful each step of the way. Using his influence to control every aspect of a team from the coaches, to trades, to free agents.
LeBron also began the era of the super teams. It starts with him in Miami in 2010, then Cleveland in 2014. The next player to use LeBron’s blueprint was Kevin Durant in 2017. When Durant couldn’t get past the Warriors in the playoffs while a member of the Oklahoma Thunder, he joined the Warriors. The Silent Killer Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio to Toronto where he led them to a championship that season only to leave the reigning champs in free agency to team up with Paul George on the LA Clippers. George would also force his way out of OKC after just signing a new contract.
The formation of all these super teams is thanks to a rule that was intended to limit the amount of money an individual player made. The Max Contract. In 1997 Kevin Garnett was given an unprecedented 6 year $126 million dollar contract. This drove owners crazy because of the demand star players would make following this deal and how it would limit free agency. The max contract limits the amount a star player can make to a percentage relative to the leagues cap space. This deal pushes the surplus money from stars to other players thus evening the field of offers teams can give.
This new max contract rule was a win for the owners but it came with unseen consequences. First, if you limit the amount a team can offer its franchise players to stick around then sticking around no longer seems like a good idea. If a player can take a little less money for an overall better team then what is holding them back from leaving?
Second, is the three levels of max contracts. An 0-6 year player can be offered a contract worth 25% of the salary cap, 7-9 year veteran players can be offered 30% of the salary cap, and a 10 year player can receive 35%. This creates a loophole in the system for players to sign short contracts to continually up their salary.
Now you may be asking this talk about max contracts and super teams is great but how does it factor into the player empowerment?
Well we’re getting there so just stay with me
The Power of the Self Brand
In limiting the amount of money a super star player can make from basketball it opens the field for other opportunities. LeBron James makes $39.4 million from his base salary with the Lakers a whopping $60 million from his endorsement deals. LeBron is a salesman first and a basketball player second. But not every player is LeBron James. Derrick Rose is a prime example of brand over league. Rose makes $7.9 million from his NBA contract but has a $187 million contract with Adidas.
Tennis and Golf stars have long recognized the value their brand holds. Maria Sharapova is the highest paid female athlete with a career earning of $325 million. The catch, only $35 million of that is from prize money the rest is all sponsorship deals. Ready for this one? Since turning pro in 1996, Tiger Woods has earned $1.5 Billion dollars in endorsement money. Colin Kaepernick who hasn’t played professional football in 4 years has an undisclosed multi-million dollar contract with Nike.
The NFL is slightly different from other pro leagues where the star players take home most of the money available from the salary cap. Russell Wilson earns $32 million in salary and $10 But for the players that earn less money, sponsorship deals are their livelihood. Cam Newton earned just $1.7 million this past year with the Patriots but earned almost $10 million from endorsement deals.
Following the Money
Players recognizing the extremely high value they bring to brands has empowered them to turn against their main employers, the leagues themselves. In years before players were fearful about speaking out and being labeled distractions or seeming as uncoachable. These labels could be damaging to their earning by giving leverage to owners to offer lower salaries in contract negotiations.
The NBA’s history with player power has long been established. Now on the rise is the NFL. Not too long ago players were seen as easily replaceable, speaking out was taboo and could wind a player being dumped onto a bad team. In today’s NFL things are changing.
Take Jamal Adams for instance, regarded as one of the best young safeties in the league. Adams was increasingly frustrated with the New York Jets for not signing him to a new contract as well as other things inside the organization. Adams is signed to Jordan Brand as part of his apparel deal. While the details of the contract are unknown as a former top 10 pick it is likely very lucrative.
Adams was successful in his public outcry amid his dispute with the Jets. Adams was traded to the Seattle Seahawks and is on the verge of signing what will likely be one of the largest contracts by a safety in NFL history. More recently a prominent player has garnered interest on the trade market following his dispute with his team.
This player is Deshaun Watson. Watson is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Since being drafted in 2017 he has been to three consecutive pro-bowls and led the league in passing this season. But Watson has grown frustrated with his organization the Houston Texans.
The Texans fired their dictator/coach/general manager Bill O’Brien this past season and promised Deshaun a say in who his replacement would be, that was short lived. The Texans went behind Deshaun’s back and hired Nick Caserio from the New England Patriots without consulting him.
While it is rare for players to be involved in front office decisions, backing out on promises to a young star should be the last thing a franchise does. Deshaun has been as public as Adams in his disgust with the Texans and has requested a trade.
Players from through the league have flocked to Watson’s side offering support and actively recruiting the quarterback. Even Texans legend Andre Johnson has shown support for Watson. Johnson tweeted
“The Texans organization is known for wasting players careers,” the former All-Pro receiver added. “Since Jack Easterby has walked into the building nothing good has happened in/for the organization and for some reason someone can’t seem to see what’s going on. Pathetic!!!”
Young Guns Pull their Weight
The athlete empowerment movement is not limited to paid professionals. The NCAA has had a precarious history with the players they are supposed to be representing. This season especially. With COVID shutdowns restricting travel and social interaction college sports looked to be in jeopardy. Leagues such as the PAC-12 and BIG10 were ready to forgo the season entirely.
That was until the players got involved. For some scholarship athletes a forgone season was something they couldn’t afford. Athletes looking to go pro needed this season of film to prove they were draft worthy.
Players such as Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence and even former President Donald Trump got involved on Twitter to petition the BIG10 to resume play after they felt the season was canceled too hastily. A month after the announcement to postpone the season the BIG10 reversed their decision.
Players had done something never before seen in the college ranks. They displayed and found out how much power they truly wield compared to the league offices.
The player empowerment movement is growing day by day. Gone are the days of shut up and dribble. Players across all levels recognize they are the product people come to see. The owners and directors just set up the time and place.