In the aftermath of football legend Cristiano Ronaldo going behind the back of his club Manchester United to do an interview, his derogatory comments left a bad taste in the mouth of the club board, manager, and even some of his former teammates. It is undeniable how power in the world of sports has visibly shifted from being primarily in the hands of the club owners, managers, and coaches, to players—who have more control than ever. In many ways, this power shift has been a healthy development; as individual talents become the main attractions that garner fans and generate massive income, they should be allowed to have a say in situations that concern them. However, this player empowerment movement has arguably gotten out of hand.
Over the past five years, some of the most prominent athletes have done exclusive interviews that sent shockwaves around the world—especially to their clubs’ fanbases. While Ronaldo is currently the one making headlines, he is far from the first, with Chelsea record-signing Romelu Lukaku and seven-time Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi making controversial comments and eventually forcing moves out of their current clubs. Evidently, most of these interviews have been proven necessary as they magnified internal problems surrounding their respective clubs, but there is no doubt that they crossed the line of unnecessary disrespect toward their employers.
In the case of Lukaku, his behavior was much less understandable since the Belgian continuously made premature and humorous comments about returning to his old club just three months after agreeing to a deal that made him the second-most expensive footballer in history. Athletes of this caliber have all the right to an ego, but there must also be a level of respect as they are professionals under contract to these teams that pay them millions of dollars every year.
One aspect that cannot be underestimated in the rise of player empowerment is the subsequent prominence of super agents who demand the best deals for the players they represent. In the world of association football, one of the most prominent names in the field is the Portuguese Jorge Mendes and, before his passing earlier this year, Mino Raiola. The latter was known to be the most efficient super agent in all the sense of the title, maximizing the contracts that would be given to footballers he represented and proving why he was hired by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, and Erling Haaland to name a few. In basketball, an up-and-coming figure among agents is Rich Paul, as evidenced by his representation of all-star caliber players, including Anthony Davis and Draymond Green.
These agents may have the best interests of their athletes as professionals, but they also form personal bonds with them . In the process, however, they also encourage these young players to speak out if they feel slighted in the smallest sense to protect their personal interests. Consequently, this creates a rift between the club and the player itself that quickly escalates into a messy issue that takes away from the playing field of the actual sport.
The “new media”
Another significant factor today is the recent rise of what Draymond Green coined as the “new media”—a phenomenon born from the rise of social media. An integral part of everyone’s daily lives, social media applications such as Twitter and Instagram were instrumental in giving athletes a very accessible voice, cutting out the middleman in press conferences and sideline interviews. This helped the general public see the players on a more personal level, rather than just looking up to them as idols.
Fast forward to today, many professional athletes now have their own podcasts and talk shows that allow them to continuously share their stories and opinions on today’s issues. Frankly, this revolution of “new media” is a very beneficial development for sports, but I would say that playing the sport should not be the only criterion that exists for someone to propagate their opinion to the world. There has to be a level of objectivity and analytical capability to be a part of the “new media” because professional athletes have powerful feelings about their contemporaries as well, which may be borne out of personal vendettas. This leads to situations like NBA veteran Patrick Beverley criticizing future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul on live television. Simply put, what differentiates fans and players on social media should be the vast experience and expected professionalism from the latter.
One would have to possess an outdated mentality to view the new age of player empowerment as more detrimental than beneficial for the sports world. The fact that players now have a significant say on their own fates will improve the individual careers and overall well-being of the athletes because they can be viewed more as artists in their field rather than as mere resources to profit from. However, as stated by 15-year NBA veteran and podcaster JJ Redick, it is not impossible for player empowerment to go too far. Athletes—especially in team sports—have to realize that their actions affect the fans that look up to them and, more importantly, the teammates who share the same locker room as them. Player empowerment is vital in improving the conditions for athletes, but a “me-first” mentality makes an impact beyond the locker rooms and arenas.