Way, way, way back in the spring of 2016, which qualifies as ancient history in American sports, Kobe Bryant retired after his 20th NBA season. All were played with the Lakers, shockingly enough. Who knew it would be an anomaly for the years ahead, a last vestige of allegiance soon to vanish in a bubbling vat of athlete empowerment amid a raging storm of get-me-out-of-here-ism?
The signature on a contract is scribbled in invisible ink now. Free agency is perpetual, as sure as the gold wheels on a Gucci luggage set. Buy a jersey to pay homage to your favorite athlete and, chances are, the purchase is obsolete before the first washing. Should Fanatics consider rentals? Is it possible no icon ever again begins and ends a career with the same franchise?
I hope and pray that man is the dazzling Fernando Tatis Jr., recipient of the third-largest deal in baseball history — $340 million over 14 years. But, really now, what are the chances he’ll finish his playing days in San Diego in the late 2030s? Let’s predict 2026 as the Vegas over-under for his first trade demand, regardless of his no-trade clause.
It can’t be healthy for the leagues when fans are more immersed in where players are headed next than the actual games. A monster that was created in the NBA, with a superteam craze forged by itchy stars, has spread like a virus variant to the NFL, where wandering-eyed quarterbacks who recognize their power already have swallowed an offseason awaiting furious activity. LeBron James started this madness by shuttling from city to city, like a mercenary, and winning four championships. Tom Brady continued it by bolting New England after 20 seasons and winning another Super Bowl in Tampa.
Now, whither Russell Wilson? Deshaun Watson? Aaron Rodgers? For that matter, J.J. Watt? This after James Harden forced his way to Brooklyn, joining two others who did the same, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And as athletes insist on playing this mobility game, owners are only too willing to flip their own middle fingers — which explains, in labor-troubled Major League Baseball, why the Indians preferred to deal Francisco Lindor than give him a fortune and why Colorado dumped Nolan Arenado two years after vowing he’d be a Rockie for a life. And why, in the NBA, Andre Drummond is sitting on the bench in his civvies while Cleveland collects trade offers … and Draymond Green loses his mind in a rant for the times.
“I would like to talk about something that’s really bothering me. And it’s the treatment of players in this league,” Green said after the Warriors drilled the barely trying Cavaliers. “To watch Andre Drummond, before the game, sit on the sidelines, then go to the back, and to come out in street clothes because a team is going to trade him, it’s bulls—. Because when James Harden asked for a trade, and essentially dogged it — no one’s going to fight back that James was dogging it his last days in Houston — but he was castrated for wanting to go to a different team. Everybody destroyed that man. And yet a team can come out and say, `Oh, we want to trade a guy,’ and then that guy has to go sit, and if he doesn’t stay professional, then he’s a cancer. And he’s not good in someone’s locker room, and he’s the issue.
“At some point, as players, we need to be treated with the same respect and have the same rights that the team can have. Because as a player, you’re the worst person in the world when you want a different situation. But a team can say they’re trading you. And that man is to stay in shape, he is to stay professional. And if not, his career is on the line. At some point, this league has to protect the players from embarrassment like that.”
He makes a timely and powerful point — but not for the reason he thinks. In the dizzying movement of players from team to team in all leagues, as even those who cover sports struggle to keep up, it’s not a question of whether the players or owners are right. In truth, they’re ALL wrong, because no one is concerned about the competitive integrity upon which sports are built. Does anyone care that a superstar in flight, while bringing joy to a market already established as a glittering destination, also might bury his former franchise for years to come? Is anyone thinking about a lopsided paradigm in which only a few teams can win titles? And how this constant motion — and struggle for entitlement — leads to frustration from the provocative likes of Green?
Happy feet are nothing new in sports offseasons but not to the degree of 2021, when Wilson or Rodgers can make one cryptic statement and possibly shift the NFL’s balance of power for years. “I’m not sure if I’m available or not. That’s a Seahawks question,” Wilson told talk host Dan Patrick. “I definitely believe they’ve gotten calls. Any time you’re a player that tries to produce every week and has done it consistently, I think people are going to call for sure. … I’m not sure how long I’ll play in Seattle. I think, hopefully, it can be forever. But things change, obviously, along the way.”
What changed? Answer: Watching Brady, more than 11 years his elder, barely get touched in Super Bowl LV while using his potent, hand-selected weapons. Wilson is tired of physical beatings (394 sacks and counting) and weary of having little say in personnel decisions within a Pete Carroll/John Schneider production. “Tom was taking shots down the field and getting the ball to his guys and stuff like that — and he wasn’t touched, really,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, you want to win. You play this game every day to wake up to win. You play this game to be the best in the world. You know what I hate? I hate watching other guys play the game.”
As in The Big Game, which has eluded Wilson since a repeat Seattle title, easily attainable with a Beast Mode handoff to Marshawn Lynch, became an all-time heinous interception six years ago. “I want to be able to be involved because, at the end of the day, it’s your legacy, it’s your team’s legacy, it’s the guys you get to go into the huddle with — those guys you’ve got to trust,” he said. “If you ask guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and, you know, Tom, I think you saw this year how much he was involved in the process — and that’s important to me.”
So, say Seattle trades Wilson. The team that acquires him becomes an instant contender. The Seahawks, meanwhile, regress for a while.
This is good for sports, caving to one man’s self-centered whims?
Every day, it seems, another big name is restless. “Free agency is wild,” tweeted Watt, who talked his way out of the Houston debacle and could go home to Green Bay, join his two brothers in Pittsburgh, defend a title with Tampa Bay or choose Buffalo, Arizona or Cleveland. Before Brady was even tossing the Lombardi Trophy from his parade boat to another, his QB brethren were plotting moves similar to his escape from Foxboro. Matthew Stafford, his postseason dreams dying in Detroit, respectfully divorced himself from the Lions so he could be saved by the Rams. This only intensified Watson’s wishes to extricate himself from Houston. And who knows what’s inside Rodgers’ head after he suggested a move out of Green Bay, where the Packers might not be receptive to a record-breaking extension even after his latest MVP season?
Suddenly, every team with uncertainty at the most important position in team sports — a description fitting at least half the league — is involved in the domino circus. Is Watson headed to the Jets, Panthers or Dolphins? Would Urban Meyer, soiled by his latest tone-deaf controversy, trade the Trevor Lawrence pick for Watson and the chance to win now in Jacksonville? Or will the Texans rebuff the trade demand, forcing him to return or perhaps sit out the season? Isn’t Wilson a natural in Las Vegas, where the pressure is on Jon Gruden to start earning his $100 million? Or the Cowboys, if Jerry Jones tires of the Dak Prescott drama? The Bears can’t go another generation without a franchise QB, can they? Don’t the Eagles realize Carson Wentz isn’t worth a No. 1 pick, which is why the Bears and Colts haven’t budged in trade talks? The 49ers lurk, not happy with the status quo.
The Saints need a successor to Brees. Bill Belichick will be apoplectic if he can’t find a QB — a Jimmy Garoppolo reprise makes sense — as Brady seeks an eighth title at age 44. The Steelers aren’t committed to broken-down Ben Roethlisberger at a $41 million cap hit. Matt Ryan is nearing the end in Atlanta. And when moves start to happen, whither Sam Darnold? Derek Carr? Tua Tagovailoa? Teddy Bridgewater? In the draft, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields join Lawrence as high picks.
For diehard fans and fantasy players, it’s delirium. But when the drumbeat of the musical chairs game drowns out zeal for the season itself, something is wrong. It means the blurry business of sports is overwhelming the joy of real competition. And yet, do we see anyone stepping in to stop the swirl? The players, the owners, the networks — everyone is too busy getting theirs to notice the chaos. It’s a good thing the customers aren’t spending much money in stadiums and arenas these days, or they’d be contacting the Better Business Bureau. You don’t invest money in a future Broadway show, only to watch the star bolt for a production where he has a better chance of winning a Tony.
As a labor impasse looms at season’s end, MLB begins its death-march season with a trickle of legitimate contenders and too many premeditated stragglers. Clayton Kershaw drilled the industry with a fastball when he told the Los Angeles Times why playing for the Dodgers is special: “The motivation is the fact the Dodgers are one of the few teams that are actually trying, you know? Like when you look around the league, we have a great opportunity to win another one. So there’s motivation in that, knowing that I’m very fortunate to be on a team that actually tries to win every single year is pretty cool. You see around the league, a lot of these … big-market teams are not trying to win and trading guys and doing different things and not spending money.”
Down the freeway, the Padres are defying their small-market status with gargantuan statements, rewarding Tatis with the richest contract ever given a 22-year-old U.S. athlete. In a stunning but laudable sequence, they’re trying to keep up with the filthy rich Guggenheims at Dodger Stadium. But the Padres also are angering owners who wonder why San Diego didn’t manipulate the system and wait a few seasons before making the jackpot offer, creating more labor tension and division in a sport that can’t afford a work stoppage. Ever think you’d see a $630-million left side of the infield anywhere in baseball, much less at Petco Park, where Tatis and Manny Machado do their work?
The NBA, in desperation mode amid ratings declines and an All-Star Game that Atlanta doesn’t want, smothers America with Brooklyn Nets appearances while praying another formed superteam, the Lakers, isn’t doomed by Anthony Davis’ Achilles issues. Never mind that the Utah Jazz might win a title without the help of mobile superstars; let’s just put the Nets on TV three times a week, including Thursday’s night game against the reigning champion Lakers in Los Angeles. In the height of irony, James rejected hype that Durant, Harden and Irving are the most potent threesome ever.
“Um, have we forgot about KD, Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) already? I mean, there you go. There you go right there,” said James, 11 seasons after taking his talents to South Beach and joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Amnesia about the Warriors, just two years removed from the Finals, might explain why Green’s moods are on red alert. As a lightning rod who once said people who buy sports franchises shouldn’t be called “owners” — he compared it to a slave plantation mentality — Draymond is a little loopy if he thinks those who’ve accumulated massive wealth will bow to athletes who ultimately come and go. If Green wants to invest his earnings wisely and try to buy a franchise someday, he can make delusional remarks such as: “You shouldn’t say owner. When you think of a basketball team, nobody thinks of the f—in’ Golden State Warriors and think of that damn bridge (on the jersey). They think of the players that make that team … you don’t even know what the f—ing (bridge) is called.” But as James reminded Green, owners always will be called owners.
“It’s the narrative of what the league has always been,” he said. “They’ve controlled the narrative of how players should be, how they should act, how they should treat their organization and if things don’t go their way they have a way of getting out the narrative that this person or that person is a bad fit or a cancer to the team or whatever the case may be. We want to be able to have an opportunity to create and also be able to control our own destiny at times as well. We just want people to understand there’s two sides of the coin. It’s not just one-sided.”
Mark Cuban dismisses Green’s words as prattle. “For him to try to turn it into something it’s not is wrong. He owes the NBA an apology,” the Mavericks owner told ESPN when the issue originally flared. “To try and create some connotation that owning equity in a company that you busted your ass for is the equivalent of ownership in terms of people — that’s just wrong. That’s just wrong in every which way. People who read that message and misinterpret it — make it seem we don’t do everything possible to help our players succeed and don’t care about their families and don’t care about their lives, like hopefully we do for all of our employees — that’s just wrong.”
Green also is askew when he says franchises are arrogant and heartless in moving players. Again, does he not grasp that the owners sign the paychecks? Blake Griffin has outlived his usefulness, a broken superstar unlikely to atrract a nibble on the trading block when he’s making $36.8 million this season, with an option for $39 million next season. So what are teams supposed to do, still treasure him as the dunking demon who once leaped over a Kia when he hasn’t dunked in a game in more than 14 months?
Where Green is right about NBA life not being fair: When the Cavaliers sit Drummond without criticism while Harden is pulverized for tanking in his final Houston days. They’re all wrong, allowing winning to become a distant priority to cold business. Just because players are speaking up now and demanding trades doesn’t make them right. They’re as egocentric as the owners now.
More than five decades ago, Curt Flood fought the baseball lords over the reserve clause. His challenge spawned the beginnings of free agency, which served as rocket fuel for the sports boom. But it’s one thing for an athlete to wait for his contract to expire before pursuing freedom.
Pre-agency is something entirely different and considerably more lethal. It is a euphemism, in fact, for anarchy.