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At Large | From Messi to the Bucks to tennis, athlete power is growing in unpredictable ways

The suspension of the NBA play-offs in protest at police brutality and racial injustice, and the judgement players showed in how they agreed a return, was just one recent demonstration of the rise in athlete influence. Yet it is a phenomenon that will take many forms.

2 September 2020 Eoin Connolly

Late last week, American sport faced the prospect of a second widespread shutdown in just a few months. But where the first was the result of events beyond almost anyone’s control, the question this time was about a different kind of influence. 

Only rarely are top athletes put in a position as consequential as that of those National Basketball Association (NBA) stars who were debating the future of their season over 48 late August hours. When the Milwaukee Bucks, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in their home state of Wisconsin, led walkouts from NBA playoff games – actions followed by peers in the WNBA, Major League Baseball (MLB) and Major League Soccer (MLS) – they did so at a point of deep exasperation. As perspectives lengthened, they assumed extraordinary leverage. 

The fate of a campaign pieced back together in Covid-secure form, months of painstaking work, millions of dollars in revenue, even the value of individual careers was weighed against the need to do the right thing.    

Those teams did retake the court in the end, of course, but only after agreeing to a very specific set of conditions. The most telling of these compels NBA owners to convert arenas into safe polling places for November’s US general election or, where that is not possible, to use them in making it easier for local people to vote and process votes. 

It was a display of strategic acumen to match that earlier show of moral courage. Over generations, sportspeople have grown used to a symbolic role – African-Americans in the US more than most. That trend predates even Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s colour line. There was a poignant coincidence in the news that Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman, who first rose to prominence playing Robinson in the 2013 film 42, had passed away as another cohort of mostly black American sports stars felt compelled to take another stand.  

There is significance, then, in the fact that those players felt it important not just to speak for the voiceless but to give others a chance to be heard. President Donald Trump, as it happens, has since complained that the NBA is now “too political”. Perhaps its stars should maintain the same neutrality as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White, a speaker at the Republican National Convention, or Trump donors like Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Woody Johnson and Dan Snyder. Either way, this particular column is about the dynamics of power within sport, rather than the sweep of American domestic politics. 

It is interesting that NBA players feel they have as much right as team owners to assert themselves; interesting, too, how they are spending their social capital with a view to delivering meaningful change. The truth is that even before this episode, they seemed to have an unusually influential role in setting the course the league has been taking – on internal matters as well as public ones. 

The NBA leadership understands the commercial and ambassadorial value of those stars, and has woven that into its strategy for some time. There are long-established reasons for this – ‘labour peace’ is central to the financial health of American major leagues, with their unionised rosters and collective bargaining agreements. Still, as is so often the case with the NBA, there seems to have been something at play here that anticipates broader trends in the industry. 

In comparing the situation in American basketball to sport more widely, some distinctive elements do present themselves. Looking back to the suspension of the playoffs last week, some of the control the players held derived from unique circumstances, as well as their own credibility and clarity of purpose. Some of it comes from more stable factors, like the aforementioned strength of that union, the engagement of senior figures, and the mostly respectful dialogue they enjoy with league officials and owners.   

The question, then, is whether athletes in other sports are less powerful, or powerful in different ways. The biggest sports story in the world before the Bucks stood down last week was unfolding across the Atlantic in Spain. Lionel Messi – maybe the best soccer player on the planet, maybe ever – had lost patience with the people running Barcelona, the only club he has ever known as a professional. 

He wants to leave, and insists he has the right to break his expensive contract unilaterally. The club, and La Liga, disagree. We are not done talking about it.  

On one level, however spectacular the prospect of a Messi transfer, there is nothing unprecedented about this: wantaway players gonna want away, and all that. But there is something in the tenor of the negotiations, and their framing in issues of corporate governance and financial strategy, that smacks less of a personal dispute with an employer than a commercial partnership or the transfer of an invaluable bit of IP.  

Part of it is scale. The Athletic this week described Messi’s father, Jorge, as not just his representative but ‘the chief executive of a “family business” that turns over more than €150 million a year between Leo’s Barça salary, his many commercial contracts, the family’s property investments and other various business interests’.

And sure, footballers have been getting richer for as long as there have been footballers. Nevertheless, there is something going on in the relative appeal of the very best players and their clubs and the financial ramifications of it are still unwinding. To use the crudest measure imaginable, Lionel Messi has 166 million followers on Instagram, Barça have 89.3 million and La Liga has 30.2 million.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s great rival, has 237 million, and that stratospheric profile was a major factor in Juventus’ decision to spend €100 million on his then 33-year-old talents in 2018. Compared to what went before we know that the digital media ecosystem, with its dependence on social platforms, is much more aligned with high-profile individuals than organisations. We just don’t know what that means yet. 

The clout of athletes has a tendency to wax and wane and it is probably not wise to say that any of this is unprecedented. Certainly, rights holders know from historical experience when it is not in their interest to call the talent’s bluff. It is customary, at this stage of the conversation, to reach back to the 1970s for a case in point: Kerry Packer and the big-money lure of his World Series Cricket rebel league.  

Yet we may be leaving behind the era where the lessons of the Packer breakaway were applied, when the pay of elite athletes soared in line with the growth in broadcast and commercial income so as to disincentivise unofficial competitors. Now, from the big leagues to the Olympic movement, many are developing a keener sense not just of what they are owed but what they could stand to earn on their own terms. In a similar way, many are keen not just to represent something, but to use personal platforms to express themselves.

There is a temptation in all this to imagine two blocs emerging, with athletes on one side and their paymasters on the other. The reality will be nothing like that simple for a whole host of reasons – not least that those athletes will have different ideas about how their sports should develop. There was a note of that in tennis with the creation of the Professional Tennis Players Union, an independent organisation to be led in part by Novak Djokovic.

Some of the men’s world number one’s peers are sceptical about the proposal, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal issuing a joint statement saying it was ‘a time for even greater collaboration, not division’. Sir Andy Murray has objected on the grounds that a union separate from the professional tours should also include women. Djokovic himself – who also stood apart from those rivals when he and the ATP Players’ Council all but ended the tenure of former executive chairman Chris Kermode – believes there is room for his group and others to co-exist.   

It is probably no surprise that tennis would be the scene of such internal debate. This is a sport whose history was shaped by athlete activism, most prominently in the form of the WTA. There is a reminder in that, too. 

Players have changed the game before and they are poised, in one way or another, to do so again. 

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