Weidner’s Words: The unequal levels of player empowerment

At the 2019 Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 1–2, Bill Simmons, a sports analyst and podcaster, interviewed Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA. The hour-long interview covered many topics, but one of the first addressed was player empowerment. For the last five to 10 years across all the major sports leagues, there has been a trend where star players take control of their own career, moving more and more often to different teams in free agency, thus maximizing their financial value and taking further control over the teams and league that are fueled by their talent.

Besides fans whose favorite player just left their team and maybe the team owners, most people are generally in support of giving players more agency in their career. After all, the players are the ones who put the product on the floor, work their entire lives to get to this point and are the ones who most often face exploitation throughout their careers. However, there is one question that isn’t regularly considered in the whole conversation surrounding player empowerment: Who gets left behind? Stars of the league who consistently make All-NBA teams — players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden — directly benefit from rules that give them more leeway in free agency and the change of culture regarding what players should be allowed to do.

Yet for most of the league, from low-tier starters to bench players to the guy on a string between the 12th man and the G League all season long, their situation has not altered that much over the last 10 years. For all the talk about how much has changed, a large proportion of the league is still completely at the mercy of the owners.

LeBron is considered to be essentially a general manager in many ways, as he controlled the personnel of the Cavaliers when he was in Cleveland and is now doing so with the Lakers. However, his personal power as a player does nothing to benefit the dispensable roles of players who shuffle through the roster. This year, when Anthony Davis requested a trade from the Pelicans, people talked about how it was a symbol of the new empowered player — a star like Anthony Davis taking control of his life. But that new control afforded to Davis does nothing for the players like Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart whose names were tossed around in countless trade rumors for weeks while the players themselves had no knowledge of where they would be employed even the next day.

It is important that star players are getting the share of power that they deserve in the league, but it’s also important to recognize that the benefits are not being felt across the board. For the players that have to fight for their next contract, there is still a long way to go.