Could a Players-Owned Basketball League Ever Really Work?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 17, 2020

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 15: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets smiles during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 15, 2020 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
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On Feb. 17, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving was elected a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association. On Friday, Irving broke ranks from the NBPA by organizing a conference call and urging players to go against the union's recent agreement to resume play in Orlando, according to multiple reports.

He reportedly didn't stop there, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

"In a recent chat group with Nets players... he also proposed that the players can start their own league," Bondy reported Tuesday.

Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks heard differently.

"Sources tell me that Kyrie Irving never stated that the Nets should begin their own league in response to the bubble," Rooks tweeted. "I'm told that after the report came out, he left the group chat."

The Ringer's Ryen Russillo added more context.

"Kyrie telling players they should start their own league is not new. He's talked to teammates about it this season," Russillo tweeted. "Based on what I was told, [Kevin Durant] was not as enthusiastic."

Regardless of whether Irving was pushing for a new player-owned league, the Orlando plan seems to have serious momentum. On Tuesday, the NBPA sent out a detailed plan of return to its members, as The Athletic's Shams Charania reported. 

But if players are concerned enough to consider holding out from the return to play in Orlando, would they be willing to leave the NBA entirely in favor of a player-owned league? Is that a practical solution?

"This concept would take years and financial sacrifice by players ... led by [whom]?" Alan Hahn of ESPN Radio and the MSG Network tweeted. "Agents tried this during the 2011 lockout. It's a lot harder than it looks."


Under NBA Contract

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The most obvious issue would be the existing contracts on the books. 

This past offseason, Irving signed a four-year, $136.5 million contract with the Nets. He has agreed to play exclusively in the NBA. Joining a new team in a new league wouldn't go far once the NBA's lawyers took Irving and a player-owned league to court.

Should the players refuse to play in Orlando, the NBA could choose to void the current collective bargaining agreement, locking out the players. The league isn't obligated to do that, and if it doesn't, the contractual issue remains.

But in a lockout, the players could choose to dissolve the union, which in turn would open up the NBA to antitrust lawsuits. Without a collective bargaining agreement, the existing contracts may no longer be binding (though that issue isn't entirely clear and could be challenged).


Barrier to Entry

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Putting aside the legal issues, would a new league be practical?

"It's more economic than legal barriers to entry," said Daniel Wallach, legal analyst for The Athletic and co-host of the Conduct Detrimental podcast. "Look at the graveyard of so many [rival] leagues in football [arena football, the XFL twice]. An undertaking like that takes [significant resources and] a ramp-up period of one year or longer ... Time is a commodity that a lot of players don't have because of the limited shelf life they have to ply their trade."

How many players would get on board with a new league if they'd need to give up their guaranteed NBA contracts and then invest in a project that may never yield a profit?

"Where are you going to play?" Wallach asked. "You need venue agreements, investors ... What would lead any fiscally responsible network to invest in a secondary league when the NBA itself isn't going anywhere?"

The NBA is far from perfect, but is its relationship with the players toxic enough that players would decide the financial risk is worth taking?

"Adam Silver is probably the most popular commissioner among players in the history of commissioners," Wallach said. "Kyrie already has the best platform in the world via the NBA. Few African American males have his status as an NBA star. He loses that entirely when he tries to start a rival league that doesn't have an imminent likelihood of seeing the light of day over the next year. Then without venues, broadcast deals, streaming rights ... no one will be able to see it."


Other Questions

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Most players have short careers and don't have the capital needed to make a significant investment in building out a new player-owned league.

What happens when they retire? Can they be waived by a team or traded?

What about new players? Do they have to buy into an ownership stake?

Because the NBPA collectively bargains with the NBA, league rules can be more limiting than the law would usually allow. If the players were also the league's owners and didn't have a union to collectively bargain with, many of the basic constructs of the NBA as we know it—such as the salary cap, maximum salaries, restricted free agency, the draft and trades without player consent—would go out the window.


Social Change

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Among players' reservations about the return to play is the idea that they might distract from the ongoing movement focused on racial inequality and policy brutality.

"The actual act of sitting out doesn't directly fight systemic racism," Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley explained to ESPN's Malika Andrews and Adrian Wojnarowski. "But it does highlight the reality that without black athletes, the NBA wouldn't be what it is today. The league has a responsibility to our communities in helping to empower us—just as we have made the NBA strong."

Among the vital issues the league must address is the disproportionately low number of black executives and coaches, as Marc Spears of The Undefeated focused on when the Chicago Bulls neglected to consider any black candidates for their top basketball executive position.

"It’s clear there is an underlying hypocrisy telling us the NBA is diverse, but when an opportunity comes, the process isn't," one black assistant NBA general manager told Spears. "All we want is a chance. As a black man, all we want is a fair opportunity to show we are just as qualified."

Bradley went on to tell ESPN that if the NBA has "plans to organize league-wide action, those proposals haven't been clearly communicated to players."

While players may be frustrated with the lack of specifics from the NBA, a player-owned league may not be a realistic alternative, as it would face massive legal and practice hurdles. Players aren’t likely to give up eight- or nine-figure guaranteed contracts. They earn roughly half of the NBA’s $8 billion basketball-related income under normal, non-virus-shutdown circumstances.

Still, the messages of players like Irving and Bradley need to be taken seriously. The country needs significant racial reform, and the NBA needs to be a leader in that movement with a more considerable commitment within its ranks.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.