Kyrie Irving has become the leader of the growing movement within the National Basketball Players Association to boycott the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season, and on Tuesday, he reportedly took part in yet another call in which he urged Brooklyn Nets teammates not to play, according to Stefon Bondy of the New York Daily News. But that wasn’t the only radical idea that he proposed. According to Bondy, Irving also argued that players could start their own league.
The NBA is unique among sports in the power individual players have. While many sports owe their success to long-term loyalty from fans to teams, interest in basketball is largely owed to a small collection of individual superstars. The idea behind players starting their own league, presumably, would be separating the talent and potential wealth generation of those superstars, who are largely African-American, from the institutions that typically profit off of that talent, which would specifically be the mostly white team owners. There has been no reporting to this point suggesting that other players are interested in Irving’s idea.
During a Friday conference call with over 80 players present, Irving reportedly said, “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.” He additionally claimed that he would give up everything he has for the sake of social justice reform, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
A number of players, most notably Dwight Howard, have publicly argued that playing basketball right now would do more harm than good on the social justice front. In doing so, players would be providing fans with a distraction from the protests taking place against police brutality and institutionalized racism. There is no proposed timetable for a players-only league started by Irving, but presumably, it would take some time to organize. Irving is currently recovering from shoulder surgery and was not expected to play at Disney even before his stance on the entire enterprise was known.
The economic viability and logistic feasibility of a league run by and for players are unknowable. Aside from the challenges of securing venues and attracting fans, the continued existence of the NBA would likely deter many of the world’s best players from considering joining it. Athletic careers are notoriously short. The sort of superstars that would be needed to make such a league successful would be passing up tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed NBA money in order to bet on themselves. In that sense, the actual formation of such a league seems unlikely.
But Irving has taken on a position of leadership in the union since being elected one of its vice presidents in February. Even if some of his ideas are unconventional, he has given a voice to a meaningful portion of his union that has been unable or unwilling to speak out. Irving’s star power protects him from the sort of retribution that some of those players likely fear, allowing him to speak on their behalf with impunity. Regardless of how controversial some of his ideas may seem, his job is fundamentally to represent the players that have elected him. He has done so over the past week, providing real pushback to Chris Paul and the union establishment. Even if the NBA does return as planned, it will have to acknowledge Irving and his coalition’s demands in order to do so smoothly.