Sports

Player Empowerment In The NFL Scares Defenders Of The Shield

Here is Steve Young giving a decidedly Older Football Guy take about the burgeoning player empowerment movement in the NFL, one that Young likened to the NBA.

Young, despite never saying “this is bad,” thinks this is bad. In his eyes, it is bad that teams are “capitulating” to the requests players put forth for a move — it is important to player that there have been three players who have openly wanted to be moved in recent weeks: Antonio Brown, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the person who sparked this discussion, Jalen Ramsey — and believes they need to draw a “hard line” by refusing to trade anyone who wants out.

It is also important to point out two things. The first is that this is three players (or a few more, if you count holdouts like Melvin Gordon and Jadeveon Clowney, which I do not) in a sport that features nearly 1,700 on active rosters, which doesn’t mark an epidemic as much as it does, well, I am not quite sure. But like any minor ripple in the world of football and sport, it has to be discussed in this overly-broad terms in an attempt to stomp out this threat to how the league has always operated — see also: the discussion of players skipping college basketball to play overseas or in the G League.

The second is that Young, a former player, is not talking about this as a player, because in the world of football, there are not players. There are people who represent a team, which is part of the league, and that is more important than any person and anything they may experience.

Football is a brutal sport, both because of what it does to players physically (more on this in a moment) and what it does to each athlete’s personhood. Bomani Jones touched on this during the most recent edition of his podcast, but the concept of a player having agency is foreign in the world of football. The sport exists so that players are perpetually reduced to being less than the piece of laundry that they wear on their torsos and helmets that protect their heads every Sunday, and god forbid if they ever do anything that flies in the face of THE SHIELD.

In the world of football, a player trying to take control of their life, regardless of the situation, is met with resistance. Brown (depending on which reporting you believe) had a preferred destination in mind after wanting to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they refused to send him there, so he did everything in his power to get there and succeeded. The Dolphins are going through as blatant of a tank as we have seen a team embark upon in recent memory, so Fitzpatrick, a wonderful player who has been a winner going back to his days as a five-star recruit at one of the best high school football programs in the country, wanted to go somewhere where he could at least try to win.

Relations are obviously tense between the Jaguars and Ramsey, and during a press conference on Tuesday, the All-Pro corner said his request for a trade stems from the fact that he wants to win football games. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise for anyone, because as Mina Kimes pointed out, this is the same player who was seen crying on the bench during his rookie season because his team was really bad.

All of these players noticed their current situations were bad, all of them did what they felt was necessary to make it better — for Ramsey, there is the added wrinkle that the Jags would not give him a lucrative contract extension this offseason — and all of them were viewed as the beginning of a new era, because in the NFL, players are told to twiddle their thumbs and shut up if discontent arises.

It does not matter that, in the NFL, the contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, bodies are essentially crash test dummies, or brains are injured beyond repair, to the point that there is a legitimate crisis regarding how the sport lends itself to its players suffering concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, one that the league has never taken quite as seriously as it objectively should. And of course, the second that a team decides it is done with a player, they’re kicked to the curb. Players are decried if they reciprocate this when they are done with a team.

When laid out like this, it makes sense that the NBA is viewed the way Young views it, as a horrifying harbinger of things to come and an enemy of what football represents. Ignore that, as Jones says in his podcast, Major League Baseball laid the groundwork for athletes being viewed as organized labor, and instead look at how players carry themselves in the modern NBA. They possess the ability to listen to their bodies and take games off, they get serious money when they sign on the dotted line, and players are empowered to be — to steal a line from LeBron James — more than an athlete.

The NBA is hardly perfect, even in this space, it’s just way further along down this path than the NFL. The concept of a player taking their career into their own hands a la Anthony Davis or Paul George (both in Indiana and Oklahoma City) is terrifying for coaches and executives in football, even if recouping something for a player who wants to leave is much, much better than letting them depart for nothing. It is all about the level of control that a player has in a given situation and utilizing whatever leverage they have.

Football players have been able to do things like hold out amid contract disputes, but now, a handful have decided their livelihoods are more important than anything else. For those who don’t care about that as much as they care about making sure teams hold all the cards in a given situation, that’s terrifying, because players exercising any amount of power they possess flies in the face of the entire concept. All of this was summed up well by NBPA head Michele Roberts in a piece that ran on The Undefeated on Wednesday morning.

“There’s just a perception that owners have rights and players don’t,” Roberts told Marc J. Spears. “I mean it’s unfortunate that we tend to, on some levels, continue to view players as property as opposed to people. And so, you allow for a certain flexibility as you exercise your property rights that somehow appear to be more compelling than a player’s individual freedom.

“And I can’t figure it out except that there is still this perception that you are property, the team is property and I can manage my property any way I want,” Roberts continued. “If you think that property rights are significant, then they must think you have to believe that individual liberty is significant, but not as significant? So, in my view, more significant. I don’t know why, and it could be because there’s some issues involving race and class and a number of things, but I don’t know that I know why it is. I just know that it is.”

Preliminary signs of the wind shifting and NFL players embracing player empowerment in a way similar to their counterparts in the NBA are here. For proof this is ultimately a good thing, just look at how it’s discussed by those who care more about the jersey than the person wearing it.

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