NBA Player Empowerment, within Prescribed Limits
The NBA commentariat sanitizes away any allusion to wealth redistribution, centering gestures and movement co-option
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is widely considered the United States’ most progressive professional sports leagues. On the basketball court, the NBA innovates through rule changes to broaden the appeal of the game far quicker than rival sports leagues.
Off the court, the league has a rich history of solidarity with social justice and civil rights movements. This history is well known by fans, largely because it is well publicized—the NBA and its partners make mention of the NBA’s historical social activism in much of their in-game promotional content and timeout commercials. In a summer rife with social unrest and despair arising from police violence, the league’s corporate partners have been quick to produce their #solidarity commercials.
But the NBA and its media ecosystem aren’t touting solidarity with the more substantive movements that the league’s players have historically been a part of. Moreover, media outlets are infatuated with coverage of individual ungrateful players—the subtext of the so called ‘Player Empowerment Era.’ In NBA media, the ‘Player Empowerment Era’ is a defining characteristic of our current professional basketball epoch, wherein NBA superstars exercise their exceptionally unique talents to demand that their teams trade them, despite the player being under an active contract.
James Harden, a former winner of the Most Valuable Player trophy and an eight time All-Star, has an active trade demand to be moved from Houston. He is also at present the poster child for the Player Empowerment Era, as he has requested the trade despite having two more years on his contract.
He doesn’t have a particularly likable personality off the court, spends much of his wealth traversing the country’s strip clubs, and is renown for his self-centered playing style. This can be simultaneously agreed upon by fans, while concurrently noting that a criticism of him as the present embodiment of the ‘Player Empowerment Era going too far’ is a shallow critique.
No NBA player is more financially well off than the team owner they work for. The value of the rhetorical device ‘The Player Empowerment Movement’ to NBA team owners and top media commentators is apparent. It is a cynical reclassification of skilled, extremely difficult to replace laborers, into a category of greedy individuals only out for themselves. The phrase is seldom used by the laborers themselves, and media commentators will only deploy it in cases where players must be admonished for exercising their bargaining power to an unwelcome extent.
Players hardly ever participate in this discourse, which shouldn’t be surprising. For a team to find success in NBA, players must realize the power they have as a collective. Likewise, when NBA players in the 1960s saw the disparity between their salaries and the revenue they brought in, they realized the power they had as a collective.
While absent from today’s coverage, the early victories of the NBA players union, the NBPA, are instructive as to who power originates from in the NBA, and how it can be wielded.
In 1958, the late Boston Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn, who had studied labor relations at Holy Cross, took over as the NBPA president. Under his leadership, the players union was strategic and aggressive in their bargaining. In 1964, Heinsohn, together with fellow stars like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Bill Russell, led a player strike just two hours before that season’s All Star game—the first to be televised in the league’s history. If the NBA’s commissioner didn’t agree to their demand for a minimum salary of $7,500 per year ($63,000 in 2020 dollars) and a pension, they would sit out the game.
With his back against the wall, the commissioner agreed to their demands with just 15 minutes to spare.
In today’s sports media climate, how would this players strike have been portrayed? Given its consistent prioritization of shaming NBA players like James Harden for exercising their labor power, I suspect we would hear much more about Bob Short’s point of view than that of the players.