Ice Cube's BIG3 May Offer Path to Peace Between NFL and Its Players

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 27, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2017, file photo, entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz, far left, and Ice Cube, second from right, pose with former NBA players Kenyon Martin, second from left, Allen Iverson, third from left, Rashard Lewis, third from right, and Roger Mason, far right, after a press conference announcing the launch of BIG3, a new 3-on-3 professional basketball league, in New York. For his league of former NBA players that debuts Sunday, actor-entertainer Ice Cube insisted the competition be serious, a proper representation of a form of basketball that's so popular that it's ticketed for the next Olympics. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

When Ice Cube speaks, it's wise to listen, and in a recent phone interview with B/R, one of the great hip-hop artists of all time, and now a member of Hollywood royalty, said something every sports league—especially the NFL—should hear.

When Cube and entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz started the BIG3 basketball league, one of the primary commandments was simple: Players will be treated with respect.

The BIG3 would work with players, not see them as drones or opponents.

"You have to come in with respect for the players," Ice Cube said. "Without the players, there is no league."

Cube isn't wagging his finger at the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. After all, those leagues have pretty successful track records built up over decades and are worth billions.

Still, Cube's approach with the BIG3 can teach the NFL, and other leagues, something about how players and owners can work together.

For years now, the NFL has been at odds with its players. Whether it is disciplinary measures or player protests or head trauma or the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league and its players almost always seem to end up at opposite sides of the table. Players have long said that many owners don't respect them as partners.

That view has led to a deep-seated distrust, and that distrust has acted as a corrosive force between the owners and players.

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Labor relations in other leagues are calmer at present, but they've all had their ugly moments.

And that long-running undercurrent of distrust is something Cube noticed when speaking to players from many leagues as he built the BIG3.

"A lot of players resent how they were treated by their leagues," Cube said. "We wanted our league to be a more collaborative effort.

In observing how the NFL generally interacts with its players, Ice Cube has tried to take a more cooperative approach in running the BIG3.
In observing how the NFL generally interacts with its players, Ice Cube has tried to take a more cooperative approach in running the BIG3.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"I don't want to sound like I have all the answers. I don't. We're a new league. I just know in football, and other sports, guys are putting their bodies, really, all of themselves, on the line. The least you can do is listen to your veterans. Listen to the concerns of your players. Sometimes, players just want to be heard.

"We don't want players leaving the BIG3 feeling any type of resentment."

Now in its second season of play, the BIG3 has become one of the more entertaining events of the summer, pitting teams largely comprised of former pros against each other in games of three-on-three, with the first team to reach 50 points deemed the winner. Names like Julius Erving, George Gervin, Rick Barry and Nancy Lieberman are among the league's coaches, while recent NBA veterans Baron Davis, Reggie Evans, Chauncey Billups, Metta World Peace, Nate Robinson, Carlos Boozer and Stephen Jackson are among those playing.

And while those names help draw fans, they also are not a group that will blindly accept whatever the league tells them. So, Cube and the management of the BIG3 have weekly phone calls with the player captains. It's a simple mechanism, Cube said, by which to hear players' concerns and think of strategies to make the league better.

This isn't wholly unusual in other sports. What is different about the BIG3 is how much effort and emphasis the league puts into bettering the player-management relationship.

In the NFL, owners have always dictated policies to the players, and any player rights have long been fought for in brutal and ugly lockouts and strikes.

Commissioner Roger Goodell does meet with player leaders, but he's also gained the reputation for being one of the more hardline commissioners in recent sports history. As a result, Goodell is constantly ripped by players.

Niners cornerback Richard Sherman is among the many to criticize the commissioner, once arguing that Goodell should relinquish some of his power. He's not alone in that view, but what stood out about Sherman's point was not the goal he wanted but the reasons behind it, reasons that drive Ice Cube's effort to run the BIG3 in a different way.

The many controversies the NFL has found itself in during the Roger Goodell era have left players distrustful of the league and its leadership.
The many controversies the NFL has found itself in during the Roger Goodell era have left players distrustful of the league and its leadership.Paul Abell/Associated Press/Associated Press

Incensed over Goodell's proposal in the spring of 2016 to eject any player who commits two personal fouls in a game, Sherman responded, via ESPN's Jim Trotter:  

"I think it's foolish. But it sounds like something somebody who's never played the game would say, something that they would suggest, because he doesn't understand. He's just a face. He's just a suit. He's never stepped foot on the field and understood how you can get a personal foul."

He's just a face. He's just a suit.

That's the type of disconnect Cube believes he can head off when players feel they are truly partners in the leagues in which they play. Not opponents.

Improved player relations are, of course, only a part of what Ice Cube hopes to achieve with the league.

"It's to have people get excited when it's time for the BIG3 to begin," he said of the league's ultimate goal. "There's always buzz when the NBA starts. Or at the beginning of an NFL season. I want the same thing when the BIG3 season begins."

It can happen. One reason why is because the BIG3 is a partnership, not a dictatorship.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.