NFL Players are Fighting for Their Agency

Lately, some NFL players have made a push for more personal agency. But can they reach the same level as the NBA?

On a cold, December night in Brooklyn in 2014, some of the biggest and brightest NBA stars wore black T-shirts imprinted with three simple words: “I can’t breathe.” Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams have since retired. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, however, are still in the middle of very prosperous NBA careers, helping two historic franchises meddle in mediocrity.

In August 2016, an NFL quarterback who led his 49ers to the Super Bowl just three years prior knelt during the U.S. national anthem in protest of racial injustices. Colin Kaepernick rode out the rest of his contract on the bench, and no NFL team has offered him a contract since despite being statistically better than a variety of players who put their signatures to new, lucrative deals.

In both cases, prominent athletes used the platform they had on injustices they perceived (in particular, the disproportionate rate of police violence against Black men). The NBA granted it’s full backing to the athletes and stood behind them. They applauded their choice to stand for what they believed. In the NFL, everyone was doing mental gymnastics on how to distance themselves from the man taking the stance.

LeBron is the biggest name in the NBA, with the power to shift conference and team dynamics with the snap of his fingers (but only if he gets the right collection of players around him). Kyrie is a star, and KG and Deron were once viewed as top talents in the league. Kaepernick, on the other hand, was a good-not-great quarterback with a few “good” and a few “not so good” seasons behind him. One could argue this was a business decision.

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Except you can still see where the NFL and NBA differ. Here’s what Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins said at the time:

“They should be political. They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. If they don’t think that there is justice or they feel like there is something that they should protest, then they should. That is their right as citizens of America, and I have no problem with it at all.”

Here’s Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer when the NFL was trying to understand how to deal with its own players’ rights of expression:

“I was proud of my team last year. They stood for the anthem. I think it’s important we stand for the anthem. I think it’s important we represent our country the right way. A lot of people have — I probably shouldn’t get on a tangent, right? — but a lot of people have died for that flag. That flag represents our country and what we stand for. And so, I think that’s important. I’ll stop there.”

The NBA gets it. The NFL does not. Many in the NFL still don’t seem to have any idea why the protests started in the first place. Again, there’s an explainer for that. The NFL has, for the most part, seemed entirely uninterested in taking its players’ side. I mean, sure, this really has nothing to do with covering up serious evidence of domestic violence and assault to protect recognizable stars from suspension, but still.

Even the way the NBA players interact internally points to the players not only having the power to stand up for themselves but empowering each other to do so. Players continuously support one another, even stepping in with the appropriate time to call the leader of the free world a bum.

As for the NFL? Let’s run a quick Google search on Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers speaking up in defense of any players.


I got nothing.

It’s not just about freedom of expression. Let’s talk about athletes’ basic expectations, the ability to play and receive compensation at the highest level proportionate to your skill.

The NBA has a structure where most contracts players sign are guaranteed. Yes, there are restriction rules as well as negotiated team and player options, but it’s mostly a straightforward process. This puts players in a place where they know how much they’re getting paid and for how long. The NBA even has rules in place to protect teams from “bad contracts” (hello Josh Smith to Detroit). It has options to levy the pressure on its salary cap (hello stretch provision).

In the NFL, not only is the average salary much lower, much of it is actually not guaranteed. That leaves teams free to discard their talent either due to age or injury, which, in a sport that undertook an Illuminati-like effort to cover up brain damage, is a nice perk for the owners. Players naturally have shorter leashes and even shorter shelf life when it comes to being productive. This is why they are more malleable to league restrictions.

This was the catalyst for some of the recent escalating trade demands. When Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season instead of agreeing to a one-year contract with the Steelers, he exercised his power. He is now with the New York Jets, for significantly less money. But he is also guaranteed more than any other non-rookie at his position. Yet the hot takes coming from media aren’t about how much power he exercised and how he fought for players to make these decisions. They’re about how much money he left on the table when he refused the Steelers’ offer, preaching that Bell should’ve just signed with the team originally, taking the team’s side.

During his trade demand saga, former Steelers teammate Antonio Brown opened up about his desire both to get guaranteed money and for his team to treat him with respect. While he was very specific about wanting a guaranteed contract, he also spoke about rifts internally, in particular with his team’s quarterback. Given his recent extension with the Steelers, Brown made it known that his primary motivation was winning. As far as the other parties involved? Some of them didn’t even have the stones to admit there was tension.

Meanwhile, NBA trade requests are way more common. There’s no guarantee how they play out. Sometimes you end up in Canada, but players generally use their power more to try and force their way out. Jimmy Butler was mired in Minnesota, and while he did catch a lot of negative attention, he also was given the opportunity to share his side of the story and then was sent to Philadelphia.

In a movement started by LeBron James, the grand poobah of NBA player agency when it’s beneficial to him, NBA players have discovered the 1+1 deal. It’s basically the reverse of the NFL non-guarantee. NFL deals protect the team if a player get hurts, while in the NBA, the 1+1 lets the player make a decision every year to potentially sign a more lucrative, longer contract when they begin to decline with age, while keeping their options open in their prime.

While NFL players are making inlines and are trying to make their voice heard over their league’s, the financial structure and the power dynamics might prove too limiting.

In the end, it may just come down to visibility. Remove a quarterback from all NFL teams and then put players in in a lineup wearing street clothes and see if you can identify more than two per team. Do the same with the NBA. Compare the results. Let me know how it goes.

By nature of the sport, we are simply more used to NBA players being visible. Even when they aren’t granted this type of visibility, they still technically “have it” by being on a team. Yes, we celebrate the superstars disproportionately, but they’re multi-dimensional, they practice different skill sets, and they all fit into the tapestry that is the league.

So, of course, we also view the NBA players as having more say when it comes to their own agency. We see them because they aren’t wearing armor. And they seem to have both discovered and embraced the power of being recognizable, something the NFL is actively preventing its own players from doing. The NFL acts as if it’s a self-serving enterprise, and the players are just tools to be used and discarded when they no longer serve a purpose. Whereas the NBA values the cultural dynamic and impact of its players, and recognizes that these individuals bring inherent value to the league.

Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.


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