This week, we’ve seen an Orlando columnist shout “you lie!” at the mere thought of Dwight Howard abandoning him and his arena; and the whole world come to the shocking realisation that Carmelo Anthony might not want to play in New Jersey, thus rendering months of trade scenarios moot.
The right for players to choose continues to threaten the day-to-day existence of the NBA.
But one superstar doesn’t think free agency goes far enough. Kobe Bryant says we’re seeing the opposite: “the power of the league controlling the players and not having the freedom to be able to move wherever they want”. Ever the contrarian, Kobe continues, “Free agency isn’t free agency anymore. It’s just not. It’s the reverse.”
Wait, there’s more:
“Players go other places, you take a significant pay cut to go play someplace else. You get less years and all sorts of stuff. It’s not the same as free agency like when Shaquille was a free agent. … That was true free agency. You could go to whatever team of your choice and have a similar contract and similar structure.”
Bryant may be overreacting. Sports leagues simply aren’t the kind of life-or-death, line-in-the-sand situation where ideology can gain traction. Even the most poorly-paid athletes shouldn’t have trouble feeding their families, and a few idiot owners can do a lot to damage the league’s bottom line. It’s also hard to say that NBA players are truly powerless, or without leverage. You get a bunch of well-paid folks — albeit with their own kind of class distinctions — tugging against each other in hopes of finding an equilibrium. They have a common goal of staying wealthy, which is quite different than workers fighting for your humanity and livelihood.
Kobe doesn’t demand an end to the salary cap because he knows that without it, the NBA wouldn’t work. Instead, he limits himself to asking why players are penalised for changing teams. You can argue that it’s a deterrent that encourages robust, stable teams, but that’s like saying the death penalty stops murder. Players are going to want to move, which is why we end up with situations like Melo’s: A player’s options are limited by his team’s ability to pull off a trade. And even once he’s entered free agency, there needs to be a sign-and-trade for him to get the best contract he can.
Players have it in their heads that it’s their right to change teams. Is the league actually benefiting from these arcane contract provisions? At best, they feel like a technicality, a snare. At worst, it leads to this Carmelo Anthony stuff, where no one seems that enthused but has to do its best to suss out the options.
And, as currently constructed, the real winners are the owners who sign away free agents. The deck is currently stacked to give them the best chance of getting a bargain for playing home-wrecker. But you don’t see columnists expressing outrage over that. Somehow, player agency remains the flash point, scapegoat, and number one issue whenever NBA labour issues are concerned.
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