Kyrie Irving and the radical imagination he almost pitched us

A reputation for absurdity means Kyrie Irving’s ideas are often dismissed out of hand. But his radical idea about a player-run league is worth exploring.

What if players just founded their own league?

NBA players are hesitant about returning to play right now, for a wide range of reasons, and in the ongoing discussions, there was a moment when we thought that Kyrie Irving had proposed a radical alternative. His teammates were quick to push back on that initial report, but it’s certainly one way to resolve a player conflict with the league — collapsing the two groups into the same. If Irving had pitched the idea for real, that would instantly make him the most high-profile name in sports to imagine basketball beyond the NBA. For now, the idea of a player-driven system in sports is probably one that exists at the far periphery of our current imagination, not one that has received much serious examination.

Make no mistake, there is power in refusing to play, especially when the working conditions don’t feel quite right. Steven Soderbergh probed this idea in his 2019 Netflix film, High Flying Bird, which centers around player agent Ray Burke (André Holland) exploring alternatives during a league lockout. The film never mentions the NBA by name, although Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson appear in cutaway interviews and the fictional league commissioner’s name is literally just a few letters off from David Stern. It honestly might be the least subtle that Soderbergh has ever been.

In High Flying Bird, Burke plays the disruptor with an extended lockout looming. With the potential of missed games and missed paychecks pinching his players and firm, he lays the groundwork for an alternative: Pick-up games, broadcasted by streaming services and social media networks. Crucially, this model cuts out the middle man. “The money would go direct to you  —  no Players Association, no league,” Burke pitches to one of his players. “The game that they made over the game is over. It’s your game now if you want it.”

In broad strokes, he’s making a pretty simple point: People aren’t paying to see the owners. The players are the product, so who should really control the profit? When players don’t play, neither group brings in any profit, but only one is capable of doing the work. Burke knew where the money and the power was. “You think these fools, these rich white dudes, gon’ let the sexiest sport fall by the wayside? … In order to move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services.” Really, this isn’t anything complex or ground-breaking, just the same basic concepts on labor power that I learned from reading Marx in college being applied to pro basketball.

Kyrie Irving’s idea for a player-run league is an idea from the here and now.

Around the NBA, we’re already seeing a spike in reports of positive coronavirus tests as well as a number of players choosing to opt-out of the season’s return, with more of both sure to come. Still, collective ownership in sports is probably too radical of a concept for the moment, at least in terms of whether or not players would actually organize around the cause. It seems like the best players in the game prefer to go back to work right now, and it’s worth pointing out that many of these stars, such as Chris Paul and LeBron James, have been able to consolidate their own individual wealth and power within the infrastructure of the NBA, including its players’ union. They aren’t likely to press for a new system.

Even High Flying Bird only toys with collective ownership. Ultimately, Burke uses it as a bait-and-switch to pressure the league commissioner into ending the lockout. He promises a players’ revolution but settles for pragmatism, a business deal. It mirrors the real world, where we haven’t yet gotten to the point of seriously imagining the business of pro basketball back in the hands of its players.

The film closes with what amounts to an effort to sell books, when a package teased as the ‘Bible’ from the very first scene is revealed to contain a copy of Dr. Harry Edwards’ 1969 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete. It details the Olympic Project for Human Rights organized by Edwards in the late 1960s, which advocated for Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics as a protest against segregation and resulted in the Black Power protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their victory ceremonies.

The plan to boycott the Olympics bears parallels to the other significant concern held by many NBA players that returning to play now would be counterproductive to the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. If the season fails to resume, the NBA warns of lost revenue and a re-negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement expected to be more favorable for owners.

Like in a lockout, financial interests are being held over players’ heads, but Edwards knew the difference between serving financial interests and who those interests serve. On Black Lives Matter, he wrote of an emergent “‘Fourth Wave’ of Black athlete activism” that centered communities and collectivism over the individual interests of Black athletes themselves and urged for “protests, boycotts and marches” to continue. There’s this idea that the NBA can be a platform for player activism, but historically, withholding labor has always been the trigger for disruption.

On the future of Black athletes’ revolt, Edwards centers “the increasing efforts of black people to control a greater percentage of the athletic industry in America … Every time a dollar gained from athletics goes into another white-owned, white-controlled project, that dollar is denied the black community. And the real tragedy lies in the fact that so many of the athletic industry’s dollars result from the efforts of black people.” There have been some attempts to reclaim the business of basketball, such as Ice Cube’s BIG3 league or LaVar Ball’s Junior Basketball Association, but these exist alongside the NBA instead of seriously challenging its monolithic status. Collective ownership, meanwhile, remains a mostly unexplored prospect.

While keeping the pandemic in mind, players have a chance to express their power as the ones who do the work. Beyond that, if they really want to get imaginative, then maybe it’s time for more serious consideration of the idea that Kyrie Irving probably didn’t pitch. His player-founded league is little more than fan fiction for now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be their game if they want it.

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