The Employed Ones: Free Agency Culture of the NFL vs. NBA

By David Hauser

Jobs.  Ask any politician a question this political season and he or she will inevitably find a way to bring the conversation back to jobs.  Politicians may be underhanded and smarmy, but they still remain a better metric than even twitter for assessing the most salient issue of the day (as of course, they must be on the cutting edge of what best to pander to).  Since the worldwide economic collapse in the Autumn of 2008, we have seen American state governors wage war against unions, politicians get tagged with the vaunted “socialist” label, endless political arguments about whether cutting taxes or increasing government spending is a sounder methodology for creating jobs, the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, and I can only guess the term “job creation” will be plastered and super-glued to our nation’s collective forehead over the next eight months as Barack Obama and (seemingly) Mitt Romney vie for the White House this November.  The operative word in this endless political theater is: labor.

As writer and pop-philosopher king Chuck Klosterman pointed out last year, every major sports and cultural story of 2011 revolved around labor.  Two of the three most popular American sports leagues had labor disputes over the same three to fourth month period.  Charlie Sheen fought his highly publicized dispute with CBS all because of labor.  Hell, even the lowly Detroit Pistons tried to organize a strike against their own coach last year by not attending practice as their unfortunate season wound to a close.  In what must be perceived as some kind of socio-cultural clash of class and wealth, this country is in the midst of a major financial distribution transition and without coincidence the sports world mirrors the broader American culture in coming to grips with this issue.

For the third year in a row, the NBA’s on court brilliance has been hijacked by the labor narrative.  Dwight Howard’s “Indecision 2012” significantly overshadowed the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.  NFL fans, who were not afforded the fast-paced rush of a traditional free agent signing period last year due to the NFL’s aforementioned labor dispute, are treating this year’s free agency period as some kind of sacrosanct religious experience (with the likes of Mario Williams, Peyton Manning, and Tim Tebow on the move).

More than ever, sports fans are wholeheartedly consumed by free agency player movement.  Through some form of fragmented sublimation of our country’s unemployment crisis, it remains easier to analyze and critique the labor relations of our athletes and celebrities than internalize and personalize our own fears about the rapidly shifting wealth and labor landscape in America.

The sports twittersphere is ablaze.  For the first time in recent memory, the opening of NFL free agency and the NBA trade deadline period occurred in the same 48-hour period (normally the NBA trade deadline is earlier, but this was moved because of the NBA lockout).  The sports rumor mill continues to swirl faster than a wind turbine in the Palm Springs, California foothills.  This unique overlap in player movement periods for the two sports provides us an unusual opportunity, a pseudo-experimental condition if you will, to examine the differences in the culture of player movement and league hierarchy of the two leagues (while also permitting us a look at our culture’s obsession of sports labor relations nearly as much as the sports play itself).

As discussed in The Leaderless NBA, the summer of 2010 fundamentally changed the culture and hierarchy of the NBA.  For better or worse LeBron and Dwayne Wade playing puppeteers over the scene of player movement in free agency changed the power brokerage system in the NBA.  Pat Riley and Isaiah Thomas can pretend they were in charge in moving the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to their respective organizations, but in reality the players decided who went where and when.  In what would make Karl Marx smile from his grave, NBA Players (and more importantly their agents) have taken over the wheel in guiding the future of the league.

Over the last month, reports have come out of New Jersey that Deron Williams is brought in on every front office team decision for the Nets (along with ownership and GM Billy King) as a means of placating him and making sure he does not abandon their franchise.  Last week prior to signing on for one more year with the Magic, Ric Bucher reported that Orlando Magic executives offered Dwight Howard the executive choice to “decide the fate of both GM Otis Smith and Coach Stan Van Gundy at the end of the season if he signs a long-term extension.”

In 2010, LeBron sat in his New York offices as team management and ownership groups huddled together in teams and shuffled over to the King’s throne to beg his highness to please take their meager $100 million offerings.

In contrast last week Peyton Manning, a first time free agent, went door to door (granted in a private leer jet) from Denver to Nashville in narrowing down his next playing destination.  Peyton conducted his search with plenty of amenities, not exactly a road trip in a Ford Pinto, but he did carry himself differently than LeBron, Carmelo, and Howard have over the past 24 months (or at bare minimum he communicated himself better through the media).  Furthermore, when Manning signed on with Denver, the LeBron James of the NFL, Tim Tebow, was quickly shuffled out the back door through a trade to the New York Jets for nothing more than a bag of donuts and a small coffee.  Again, unlike the more vocal stars of the NBA, not a peep of objection was heard from Tebow about his sudden fall from the “Rocky Mountain Love” from three months prior.

Based on this comparison, it would be easy to then posit some kind of stereotype that the likes of a Peyton Manning or Tim Tebow are “old school” and carry themselves with more class than these young guys in the NBA.  Some have been forwarding a narrative saying that NFL players are more team oriented and less greedy than NBA stars.  Others might even try to raise an even more asinine argument that race is somehow at play in this dynamic.  However, I would argue fervently that none of these explanations are accurate.  Instead, I believe this contrast is the product of differences in the labor culture in the two leagues.

Labor Culture

“Culture” is usually reserved to discussions of countries or ethnic groups, yet even smaller factions like corporations, organizations, or even families have a distinct culture to them—unique habits, behaviors, and overall atmosphere.

One of the hottest terms in corporate America over the last few years has become “culture change,” dare I say it has even surpassed “synergy” as a favorite among the suits’ everyday vernacular.  If a Fortune 500 has several poor quarters in a row, rest assured their board of directors will soon be issuing a press release suggesting a new CEO is coming in to right the ship (and balance sheet) and that with this new “culture change” the company will return to its forgotten glory days. (A fascinating example of a less than desirable culture change can be found in this New York Times write-up of billionaire Sam Zell’s arrogant attempt to “save the newspaper industry,” but ultimately scandalously soiling the 100 year positive reputation of the Chicago Tribune).

The culture of an organization or group is established by its leader.  If a corporation has a morally bankrupt leader, then this lack of morality will filter down to mid-management and ultimately down to its broader labor force (see: Goldman Sachs).  Similarly (but more positively), if say a parent strongly emphasizes the value of education as a mechanism for life success, then their children will likely internalize this value and also care about educational pursuits.  That which is valued and emphasized at the top of a group hierarchy inherently trickles down to those with less power within a family or organization.

In the NFL, the “culture” of the Pittsburgh Steelers is defined by their owners, the Rooney Family is a model in which other teams try to emulate.  The Steelers organization consistently embodies the classy values and leadership of the Rooney’s through the players they draft/acquire and coaches they hire.  When Ben Roethlisberger found himself in the news two summers ago for unseemly behavior with young woman and an overall lifestyle of excess, he came into direct conflict with the culture of the Steelers.  On several NFL teams (with weaker leadership) a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback would be above the law and set his “own culture.”  Yet that summer the Steelers organization seriously contemplated and explored trading or cutting their talented quarterback, knowing a violation of their organization’s values was more detrimental to the team than exceptional quarterback play could be positive.  Notice since the summer of 2010, Big Ben has got in line and has not again besmirched the Steelers name.

The same “cultural trickle down” can be found in the NBA.  Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, has been both lauded and chastised for his outgoing and outspoken team ownership approach, along with his visible passion and intense desire to win an NBA Championship.  Not surprisingly, the characteristics (or culture) of the owner filtered down to his players.  In the Mavs “Nowitzki-Nash era” of the early 2000’s, the team displayed a bold, unabashed up-tempo style, which resulted in real playoff success for the first time in franchise history.  Yet just like their owner, this Mavs team was victim of their own intense passion, placing too much pressure on themselves and falling just short of championship hopes.  As Cuban matured though, the Mavs matured as well.  This last post-season the Mavs embodied this maturity through measured passion, along with composure, and an-all around team effort demonstrating a culture of success that beat even the most talented superstars, in the Miami Heat.

Case Example

The Buffalo Bills football organization has struggled mightily since the early 1990’s when general manager Bill Polian left to run the Indianapolis Colts and as team owner Ralph Wilson aged into his 90s.  The team has not made the playoffs since Bill Clinton still lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in large part because the organizational culture has consistently been in disarray.

However the culture of the Bills has gradually changed over the last few years under the new leadership of general manager Buddy Nix.  Take Buffalo Bills Wide Receiver, Stevie Johnson, as a test case.  Stevie has become known more for his young flamboyant style and endzone antics than his stellar on field play (no other WR has shredded Darelle Revis “Island” so consistently).  Johnson, like young NBA superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, is covered in tattoos and adorns himself with a variety of piercings.

In the final game of the 2011 NFL season against the archrival Patriots, Stevie Johnson caught his 7th touchdown of the season (putting him over 1,000 yards receiving for the 2nd straight season), but managed to pick up his second 15 yard celebration penalty of the season with this spirited New Year’s message (costing the Bills valuable field position on the following kick off).  Bills Head Coach, Chan Gailey, benched Johnson for the remainder of the game.  This being the last game of the season and with Johnson immediately headed into free agency for the first time in his career, Buffalo beat reporters scurried over to Johnson’s locker after the game asking whether this benching would propel him out of Buffalo as he might be desirous of a team that did not enforce such “order.”

Stevie Johnson has become better known for his outgoing celebrations than stellar on-field play

The exact opposite happened.  The 25-year old tatted, pierced up, and hip-hop styled Johnson maturely said after the game, “I can’t complain about it or whine and pout. [Coach] made his decision and I am going with it.  What I did hurt my teammates.”

The Bills beat reporters assumed, based on all the recent happenings in the sports free agency landscape over previous years, that a young outspoken player could not possibly handle a little discipline.  They assumed that such a superstar player would never re-sign with a team that held steadfast to a series of rules or team values rather than being flexible of such rules with its signature money making players.

Stevie Johnson re-signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason for $36 million dollars over 5 years.

Bills GM Buddy Nix showed foresight in not judging this young athlete, falsely assuming he is some kind of trouble making thug based on his expression of himself on the field and through his stylistic choices.  Johnson showed maturity in recognizing the team is larger than one player and winning is the result of everyone within a system or organization doing their unique job extraordinarily well, not one player assuming he should have power and control over every aspect of his team because he has unworldly athletic gifts.

The talent pool and management structure of the NBA and NFL remain almost identical.  However, the NBA and NFL are showing us through the past two weeks that each has a very different free agency culture from each other.  This Stevie Johnson example is not some catch all scenario that suggests the NFL is superior to the NBA in its free agency approach, but simply different.  Further differences in hierarchy and free agency attitudes suggest each league requires continued growth in order to find greater harmony in labor relations.

NBA Free Agency Culture

One of the strangest wrinkles amongst the flurry of rumors and stories of the NBA trade deadline was learning of the leverage of shoe companies in dictating NBA personnel decisions.  Adidas recently doled out $260 million over the next 14 years to the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose in their tireless pursuit of athletic shoe giant and market-share dominator, Nike.  The financial attraction of a D-Rose is that he plays in a major U.S. market, grew to brilliance from humble inner-city roots (Rose’s most recent shoe pays homage to his impoverished South Side Chicago neighborhood, Englewood, in what appears to be Adidas’ attempt to play upon young inner-city children’s desire to make it big like Rose, while also catering to wealthy suburban white kids desire to have “urban credibility”), and because he is a point guard rather than a big-man (his slashing, lightening-quick, artistic brand of basketball is far more appealing to shoe consumers than the clunkier big man games of NBA centers, see: Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal shoe sale figures if you don’t believe it).

Dwight Howard, also an Adidas shoe salesman, has looked more the part of Married with Children’s Al Bundy than Derrick Rose in his shoe sale hustle.  Despite this, looking for his own big Adidas pay-day, the shoe giant seemed to suggest to Howard that if he ended up in the Brooklyn market with the Nets, that far more sneaker dollars would be sent his way than staying in the less urban-fashionable Central Florida.

In the Bulls ultimately ill-faded pursuit of skilled Lakers big man, Pau Gasol, Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lowe aptly tweeted last week “Bulls obviously smart to be proactive on Pau.  Hope his shoe company doesn’t mind Chicago, or whatever.”  This being a reference to Adidas’ terror that its two most marketable stars (D-Rose and D-Howard) would be housed in the same market rather than distributed across both Chicago and New York (despite the Bulls providing the best championship opportunities for Howard if he were to leave Orlando).  As an Orlando Magic homer I quipped “I’m ending my two-day long boycott of Adidas” after learning of Dwight Howard’s fourth “change of heart” in deciding to stay in Orlando for at least one season (this after pasting this Benedict Arnoldesque meme only a few days prior; it was a roller-coaster of a NBA trade deadline for Magic fans, what can I say).

The NBA has ceded control of its league to a handful of its most gifted athletes, or more precisely the management and PR teams behind each “player’s brand.”  No longer is an agent like Dan Fegan concerned with his client, Dwight Howard.  Fegan is most protective of “The Dwight Howard Brand.”  Lost in all this brand management is that cities, fans, and fellow lower-profile athletes are all yo-yo’d around on the whims of a few Adidas execs in Germany whispering in an agent’s ear that he can make a few more Yankee-greenbacks if he follows their orders.

It is alarming how much control the perceived leadership of the NBA has handed over to the players and agents.  It may create fascinating reality-TV like subplots in the short-term twitter rumor mill, but it is not a sustainable business model for the future.  The fundamental problem with this labor model is that agents and players are self-interested and driven by maximizing their own personal earning potential.  The individual player free market will only act to better the lives of players and agents, while dismissing the larger system for which they earn their money–NBA fans who ultimately foot the bill. Players and agents must seriously recognize the importance of fan support (as it is so strongly connected to their earning potential) and the responsibility they now hold in the “leaderless NBA,” or else the league will suffer.

NFL Leadership Culture

On the other side of the fairness equilibrium, NFL owners and management seem to be fully in control of player movement.  While unrestricted NFL free agents are permitted the opportunity to sign wherever they desire, more often it is the front office executives pulling the strings within the back channels of the player movement pipeline.

Colts owner, Jim Irsay, kicked Peyton Manning out of Indiana before he could even demonstrate a simple sneeze would not re-aggravate his neck injury, much less prevent him from throwing a football effectively.  Symbiotically, Broncos President John Elway of Peyton Manning’s new team, systematically hoisted fan favorite, Tim Tebow, from Denver’s stable with little reservation after signing their new 36-year old QB.

Strangely, we have heard very little complaining from Denver fans about their "savior" being shipped off to New York

The quarterback might be the most uniquely important position in all of professional sports, but by no means do players at this position appear to exhibit much control over where they play.  As NFL insider Jason La Canfora recently stated in response to those suggesting Tim Tebow had a say in picking the New York Jets as his desired destination, “consider me among those skeptical of the mythology that Tim Tebow got to pick his team via trade.  That is just not how it works.”   Contrast this to the recent Derek Fisher trade from the Lakers to the Houston Rockets, wherein the veteran Fisher announced to the world that he would not report to Houston, leaving the Rockets with no other choice than to simply buy his contract out and get him off their books.  Fisher then promptly signed with the team of his choosing (Oklahoma City Thunder).  Tim Tebow is arguably the most well-known and marketable athlete in professional sports right now, yet he has very limited control over his athletic autonomy, whereas a journeyman point guard gets to pull all his own strings.

In general, the NFL has maintained a “top-down” approach to handling its sports business.  NFL President Roger Goodell has granted himself (with help from a strong-arm approach in the collective bargaining agreement) absolute power to decide player fines for violent hits or excessive celebrations, the ability to dole out suspensions for any off the field actions that the NFL deems “harming the NFL brand,” and more recently enforced stiff penalties to teams (i.e. Patriots and Saints) for not obeying his rule. Deadspin recently described Goodell, using their usual snarky and candid tone, as “the commissioner of America’s moral fiber, a man willing to destroy the NFL, in order to save it.”  At whatever cost, Goodell is showing the league that he is in charge and others must follow.

The good news is that this heavy-handed approach creates a semblance of structure and order.  As child psychologists often reference, the most important component to healthy parenting is the setting of expectations for a child.  On Sundays, if a player crafts a fancy endzone celebration, he immediately acknowledges in post-game interviews that he knows a fine is coming.  In free agency, players do not pout if they ultimately end up on a less than desirable team.  Instead they play out their contract and hope to gain enough stature to provide themselves with value and leverage (well, unless you are Albert Haynesworth, yet even he is nearly out of the NFL despite his immense talent).  There is a major glitch with this approach though, NFL players are not children, they are grown adults with their own rights and freedoms to make decisions about their own labor interests.

It is not surprising that Goodell taking such a strong grip on leadership then trickles down the ladder to NFL executives taking forceful leadership over their teams and player movement.  It looks something like this NFL Commissioner>NFL Owners and General Managers>NFL Agents/NFL players.   Compared to the NBA, the power hierarchy is clear.  Unfortunately for NFL players, power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It remains to be seen whether this steeply inverted power structure will continue to grow the league or begin to stifle the success of the NFL empire, as over-regulation commonly does.


It is a tale of two leagues.  Both leagues are making profits and seem to have viable business models.  Yet, both labor arrangements appear to have long-term fatal flaws.  The NBA model—with players/agents at the top of the hierarchy—has not demonstrated an awareness of the potential detriment of frequent player movement upon fan loyalty.  The NFL, while very ordered and structured, seems to be venturing into the dangerous arena of over-regulation.  Ultimately, like just about anything in the world, balance is the cure.  The NBA needs stronger leadership from its owners, which frankly has been lacking with the addition of newer “bubble owners” (those pseudo-billionaires who made fast money over the last two decades, but whose finances have slipped when the economic bubble popped in 2008) like the Kings’ Maloof Brothers and the Cavs’ ever-erratic Dan Gilbert.  The NFL needs Roger Goodell to get off his “Mt. Pious,” and recognize it is in the league’s best interest to not manhandle the players at every turn, knowing that the fans come to watch the players, not watch owners put more money in their cash drawers.

America is struggling with the worst pro-longed period of unemployment since the great depression, yet the millionaire athletes and billionaire owners of the NFL and NBA still struggle to find fairness and a healthy system to divvy up piles of cash larger than the gross domestic product of most small countries.  One would hope those privileged to have such financially advantageous jobs could find harmony with each other and simply roll around in their excessive wealth like Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold in the opening montage of Duck Tales.

As New York labor lawyer Elizabeth Wagoner (of the firm Outten & Golden) suggests in The New York Times Magazine recently, we are living in an economic climate where “employers simply have so much more bargaining power than their employees.”  This “The Ethicist” column goes on to chronicle this imbalanced labor environment through a consultation to a disillusioned young professional trying to break into her field through one of the now ubiquitous “unpaid internships” littered around professional America saying, “a thousand eager aspirants are waiting for the chance to take your position.  Start issuing ultimatums [to your employer], and one of those lucky suckers will get their wish.”  We are living in an age of a labor power differential that would make even John D. Rockefeller shudder.

A tip of the cap must at least be issued to the NBA players for creating their own opportunities and flipping this labor imbalance on its head.  However, their perceived labor success, must be viewed through a broader context of a nation where employees are being stripped of any power, dignity, or even employment itself.  In the state of Florida, where LeBron James chose to “bring his talents” and where Dwight Howard may eventually gift Orlando his precious skills for a mere $120 million, the state legislature recently pushed hard to cut the minimum wage for service industry employees in this tourism dominated state (The Colbert Report lampoons this Florida legislative effort here).

At their best, sports offer individuals from across the entire range of socio-economic status, race, and creed the ability to unite behind one team, feel that they a part of something greater than themselves, and pride in their team and their community.  At their worst, athletes and team owners become greedy and snipe with one another over excessive wealth, while becoming disconnected with the fan bases that create their fortunes.

I recognize that wages are not only about money, but also respect and fairness.  As Bill Simmons illustrated with former Patriots All-Pro offensive lineman John Hannah’s labor holdout, “fans think it’s about the money, but it’s really about respect.  It’s about [fighting for] something that you believe in your heart is completely unfair.”

Yet I add this.  We are currently living in a country where unemployment and “under-employment” are at record highs over the last near century.  Sports fans, not the lawyers and hedge fund managers who gobble up all the best seats and suites for the big sports events, but the ones sitting up in the nosebleed sections every time they are fortunate enough to attend a game in person, deserve some respect too.

For athletes and owners to not understand and recognize the economic climate we are living in and respect the financially struggling fans that immortalize them and fill their coffers is a downright travesty.  So while we all continue to consume the free agency rumor mill from our twitter feeds with a voracious abandon, let us also recognize this country is struggling and hungry for jobs.  Sometimes it is just easier to be a voyeur of someone else’s labor battle than to sit and experience the pain of one’s own loss of dignity and personal respect from unemployment.

To our athletes and our sports owners, its about time we put aside the #millionaireproblems and get back to focusing on the what is best about sports—the municipal unity and camaraderie brought about from the art and beauty of a sports teams playing for themselves and others and the larger collective good.  With that there is hope.  And hope is a good thing.


5 thoughts on “The Employed Ones: Free Agency Culture of the NFL vs. NBA

  1. When you said duck tales, I thought we were talking duck dynasty…initially, I was disappointed, then I read on 🙂 I feel like Jung would really enjoy your analysis.

    • yeah I think all of our “Baseball Wives” viewing and whatnot ties together with Jung’s “Man and His Symbols” ideas. All these reality television archetypes are reflective of who were are as a people and have deeper communication meanings than people like Anna Benson might at first lead us to believe.

  2. We have read through some really good things listed here. Absolutely importance social bookmarking pertaining to returning to. I ponder how much attempt you put to create these terrific insightful web page.

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