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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Power to the player

As athletes begin to take more control over their careers, owners are looking for a way to limit damage

Since the inception of the various professional sports leagues in the United States, the athletes would take care of business on the field and make sure that they abided by the rules set by the team, regardless of how it affected them. Players were discouraged from challenging these teams because, after all, it was the team that had control over them and their careers. But recently athletes have begun to take major steps to control their own career outcomes, even while under the control of a franchise that pays them. These developments have owners and executives wondering how far until players completely take control over the sports they play. 

The three major professional sports leagues, the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, are all controlled very differently and have developed at different paces. But each league is slowly progressing toward one common goal and their observations of one another have had a huge impact. 

In many aspects, the NBA seems to be the league that is the most progressive and forward-thinking. When it comes to player autonomy, the situation is no different. After the turn of the century, there was a shift in the thought process among the players. One specific incident sparked a new era in professional basketball that signaled to players that they could play wherever and with whoever they want. 

On July 8, 2010, free-agent superstar and reigning MVP Lebron James announced on ESPN that he would be signing with the Miami Heat, joining fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in creating the first-ever “superteam.” After seven years and only one NBA Finals appearance with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James shocked the NBA universe by leaving. 

When examining the great teams of the past, the majority of them were “homegrown” like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or the Spurs dynasty of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, and so many other greats, so this decision was one that came with much criticism. After James’ move to Miami, more players began to realize how much control over themselves they really had, and that the idea of loyalty to a team only worked for the benefit of the team itself, not them. 

This event largely set the stage for what is happening in today’s NBA, where a number of star players seem to be able to join whatever team they chose, force themselves out of situations they don’t like and finally just be free. A more recent example occurred just this past summer between Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder. After leaving a frustrating situation with the Indiana Pacers just two years prior, George requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers in July. The Thunder were left with no choice but to trade George as they faced a combination of the possibility of receiving valuable record-setting picks and having a disgruntled star in the locker room.

All-NBA power forward Anthony Davis, who spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the New Orleans Pelicans, decided that he wanted out last season. His preferred destination was Los Angeles to join James and the Lakers, but the two franchises were unable to reach an agreement at the trade deadline in February. This led to an awkward last leg of the season for Davis and the Pelicans. Davis had to instead wait until June 15, when he finally got his wish to become a Laker. 

The NFL in many ways contrasts everything the NBA is and what it isn’t. The league is more conservative in nature and has a relatively unpopular commissioner. But despite these differences, the NFL has slowly begun to mirror the NBA in terms of players demanding more for themselves. 

One of the best running backs in the game, Le’veon Bell, sat out an entire year as a result of a contractual dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers and then left for New York in free agency. In the last year, players like All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, young offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, veteran offensive tackle Trent Williams and All-Pro Cornerback Jalen Ramsey have all either sat out in protest or demanded trades from their respective teams. While Williams has still has not been traded from Washington, Brown, Clowney, Tunsil and Ramsey were granted their wishes and sent elsewhere. All are among the best in their respective positions and with players like Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs voicing displeasure more openly, it seems like it is something that has begun to make its way across leagues. 

While the MLB doesn’t necessarily have an issue with players demanding trades, it appears that there is a different problem looming. When you look at the biggest contracts among professional sports leagues, none are more lucrative than those in baseball. This past offseason, star players Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were available as free agents and there were rumors spread about the possibility that one of these players would sign a never-before-seen $400 million contract. 

This ultimately wasn’t the case, but both were still able to sign extremely lucrative deals. Machado got 10 years and $300 million with the San Diego Padres, while Harper received $330 million over 13 years with the Philadelphia Phillies. These ridiculous numbers were soon to be overshadowed when, just weeks later, arguably one of the game’s best players, Mike Trout, agreed to an unheard of $430 million dollar extension over 12 years. 

These types of deals seem to be the new going rate in baseball now, and as salaries continue to grow, team owners might be more reluctant to offer that much money to these players. Investing that much money on one player is typically a high-risk investment, and in a sport like baseball, it is rare that one player can change a whole franchise all at once. None of the three players who received the big money deals this past offseason played in a playoff baseball. The owners, particularly of big market teams, have begun to notice that and will likely become hesitant to offer huge contracts in the future.

All of this begs the question: What point is it too much and when does a league needs to step in? These trade demands by high-profile players and big money spending can ruin some franchises and throw off the parity of the league, as only the big market teams will be the destinations for these players. 

These are all major talking points in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. The NFL has already begun negotiations between the owners and players’ association as the CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season. In the MLB, the CBA is set to expire until after the 2021 season, and we will know more about the direction of these contracts. Finally, the league that arguably started it all, the NBA, has to wait until after the 2024 season before their contracts expire after a seven-year agreement was taken into effect starting in 2017. Based on the events that have transpired, it will be interesting to see where the league is in five years and whether the trend continues. 

When players are playing at their highest levels, they are loyal to their colors and teams love every moment of it. But when a player begins to struggle, the team wastes no time to get rid of them. That is the unfair balance in sports and something these players have begun to realize. Star players have become more aware of their power and the teams will try to do something to stop this before they end up on the losing end. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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