When Kyrie Irving was elected into the NBA players' union as a vice president on the executive committee this February, I’ll admit to feeling some trepidation about this. Over the 2010s, the key change in the NBPA’s structure has been its assimilation into the greater superstar power structure. Chris Paul and LeBron James replaced previous leaders — respected but mostly unheralded veterans of the rank-and-file, such as Mo Evans and Roger Mason — for the 2017 labor negotiations with the league. Currently, the union's leadership mostly comprises high-profile players with salaries in or near the $20 million-plus range: Paul, Andre Iguodala, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, CJ McCollum, Bismack Biyombo and Irving. Garrett Temple, a career journeyman making just under $5 million this season, is the only union exec to fit the general contours of previous leaders.
Because of star players’ disproportionate representation in the union leadership, there can be a divergence in interests and the union has often centered its top-earners’ issues, such as raising maximum salaries, over those of the player body at large. Irving’s election into the executive committee seemed to signal a continuation of this trend, which makes it all the more surprising — especially because of his infamy as a Big Brain Flat Earther — that he’s been the lone union leader to listen to and meaningfully advocate for the concerns of what seems to be much of the player body regarding the resumption of the season. Of course, this is what a union is supposed to do.
The reasons against the return of the season right now are myriad, most of them valid. The coronavirus remains a primary concern, with cases spiking again in the region of the NBA’s proposed bubble site at Disney World in Florida, and lifestyle restrictions within that bubble are daunting, too. The big one, the concern that Irving personally echoes, is that the return of NBA basketball will distract from the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement in the news cycle. Other players feel that playing will feed their platform while bringing in money to give to causes, although it seems ridiculous to me to conflate basketball with political direct action, or protest with going to work.
Really, it doesn’t matter how you, or I, or even Chris Paul, feel about any of those concerns. What matters is that a lot of players do feel them, and other than Irving, the union’s leaders seemingly don’t. They, mostly with more money on the line and perhaps a shot at title contention, are in favor of playing, and this conflict seems to be manifesting in the form of a few empowered superstars in opposition to much of the player body. It isn’t an exclusive distinction — rank-and-file players such as Temple and Austin Rivers want to play, while Donovan Mitchell seems to have concerns — but it appears accurate enough in the general sense. Just last month, at least nine of the best players in the game gathered to form an informal council in favor of starting the season again.
The idea of “player empowerment” has been widely discussed in recent years, mostly in the form of superstars forcing their way to new teams, which isn’t really that radical or anomalous of a concept to begin with. This form of player empowerment has seemed to benefit the most powerful of players primarily, while lesser and often younger players bear out the negative consequences. Certainly, players uprooted by a superstar’s trade demand — for example, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball during the Anthony Davis trade rumors — aren't being empowered, nor are those who make less because the union successfully bargained for an increase in maximum salaries. While a 35-year-old Chris Paul banks $38.5 million this season, half of his teammates make less than $2.5 million. (It's ironic that despite Paul’s brilliant screw-you-I-still-got-it season with Oklahoma City, he continues to have one of the least desirable contracts in the NBA.)
This isn’t player empowerment. This is power consolidation, the formation of a new elite. When there are players worried about returning to basketball but also hesitant to speak against the superstars with the most pull, as Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reports, you know that this is not a meaningful collective or for-all empowerment. Malcolm Brogdon, Carmelo Anthony and Jerami Grant have spoken about their reluctance to return in interviews; Damian Lillard has alluded to a split among his teammates on coming back. JJ Redick, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Evan Fournier, Dwight Howard and Lou Williams are among players expressing concern on social media. This isn’t an exhaustive list of who stands whereby any means, but it gets at the central tension of the players’ union in its current form: Whose issues get centered?
Players’ unions in sports differ from unions in other industries by one significant distinction: The wealth gap of millions among the workers. At the highest level, a handful of players have exponential wealth in comparison to their peers and own significant capital outside of the NBA, but many more play on minimum salaries or 10-day and two-way contracts. The job of the union is to negotiate — among other things, but most crucially in the NBA — how profits are split between owners and players, but the union also determines how that money is distributed among the player population. On that front, it hasn’t expressed much more radical thinking than raising the maximum salary, which benefits top-earners at expense to the rest.
Meanwhile, other mechanisms that suppress the earning potential of many more players — rookie scale salaries, the NBA Draft itself, the salary cap or, if you’re really feeling ambitious, players’ timid 50-50 share of Basketball Related Income with owners — remain intact and mostly unchallenged. The recent formation of a union for G League players is one of the more genuinely exciting developments in recent memory, but the imagination calls for more.
Given the recent history of the union, it is significant that Irving is listening to the player body and giving them his voice. If I had to guess, Irving and the players he’s speaking for will be overruled by those with the power here: The superstars, the owners, the intersecting corporate interests of the Disney-ESPN-NBA hydra at work here. Maybe there will be some compromises made to ease players’ various concerns, but for better or for worse, basketball will be back. I only take some solace in this because it has never been so transparent to see who this players’ union chooses to fight for, and what “player empowerment” really looks like.