In the NBA, LeBron James and the players have the power.
It wasn’t always this way, but James unearthed a previously untapped amount of player influence in basketball. He is a power broker, dictating where he plays and with whom.
Other stars have followed suit. Most recently, James Harden facilitated a trade from Houston to the Brooklyn Nets to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
“The Decision” was an unprecedented event when James announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010. Now, players dictating the NBA’s landscape is the norm — and also part of its widespread appeal.
In football, it’s different. Mechanisms like the franchise tag make it harder for players to reach free agency, and there remains a publicly assumed separation between church and state in NFL organizations — that the decision-makers and the players are not one and the same.
Only last year was Tom Brady, coming off 20 years and six Super Bowl wins in New England, able to secure his free agency and recruit the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette to Tampa to win No. 7.
This offseason, though, it feels like something is changing.
Several star NFL quarterbacks have gone public with frustrations about whether their voice is being heard, included or honored in organizational decisions, from Deshaun Watson to Aaron Rodgers to Carson Wentz, to varying degrees and through different outlets.
The Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford was able to facilitate and steer a trade to the L.A. Rams — reportedly while vacationing in the same location as Rams coach Sean McVay, and nixing the Patriots and Panthers as options in the process.
Then the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson took it to an unprecedented level this week, publicly lobbying for more personnel power in deciding Seattle’s roster on “The Dan Patrick Show.” In his appeal, Wilson cited James’ influence in the NBA.
“When you think about [it], one of the reasons why Tom went to Tampa was because he felt like he could trust those guys and [coach] Bruce [Arians] was going to give him an opportunity,” Wilson said. “You think about guys like LeBron, he was able to be around great players that he can trust.
“I think for me, anytime you bring free agents in or other players, you want the best players,” Wilson continued. “And as a player … [you can] see who can really play. As a player, you really know … So I think that relationship is really key, and especially being a veteran player, that dialogue is very important … I think it helps to be involved more, but I think that dialogue should happen more often, in my opinion.”
How far can Wilson and the NFL’s elite quarterbacks push this, though? Are they pioneers, forging a new frontier of player power and influence in pro football? Or is there a line an NFL star will never be able to cross?
“I think we’re on the precipice of a truly new era in football,” former Jets GM and Dolphins executive VP Mike Tannenbaum said on the phone Saturday. “A year ago, which feels like a decade ago because of the pandemic, we were talking about 10 years of collaborative labor peace … I think where our sport is evolving is more toward the NBA where certain players — not all of them — but certain players will have the stature and financial wherewithal to take a stand against an organization for the things they believe in.
“This could be a historic and transformational offseason,” added Tannenbaum, who now runs The 33rd Team, an NFL website and football think tank. “It’s too early to say whether that will happen. These players could risk a lot of money if things don’t happen the way they want. But we’re in a day and age where some of these players have massive platforms and are able to use their platforms the way they see fit.”
Another league source put it this way when discussing Wilson, Rodgers, Watson and Wentz: “You’ve had four quarterbacks making over $30 million a year publicly share how disgruntled they are. It’s hard not to say it’s the LeBron James effect.”