I think it can reasonably (and euphemistically) be said that last weekend was an eventful one in the sports world. I certainly can’t recall another instance in which the national anthem overshadowed the games. While the NFL found itself at the center of a political maelstrom, the inaugural Laver Cup was coming to a stirring close in Prague. The tennis might have seemed a world removed from the controversy raging in the United States. But the NFL ruckus and the Laver Cup had one important thing in common: they were fascinating windows into the power dynamics of these two totally different sports.
Unless you were on another planet the last few days (and if you were, lucky you!), you are presumably familiar with all of the details concerning what went on with the NFL, so no need to rehash them here. But probably the most notable aspect of the entire imbroglio was the speed with which the team owners rallied around the players. Without getting into the particulars of NFL labor relations, it is fair to say that the owners, as a group, have never been all that labor-friendly. The owners are also, by and large, a pretty conservative bunch—a handful of them were ardent Trump backers—who surely would have preferred to not wade into this mess. It is widely assumed that the reason Colin Kaepernick, the player whose protest belatedly ignited last weekend’s firestorm, is now unable to find work in the NFL is because he is being blackballed by the owners.
So why was Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones in the middle of the field the other night, on bended knee a la Kaepernick? I suspect it was because he and his fellow owners realized that if they didn’t swiftly and strongly condemn Trump’s attack on Kaepernick and rally behind the players, there was a real danger of labor unrest, with possibly onerous consequences for the bottom line. I don’t think I’m being cynical in saying that for Jones and most of the other owners, the pushback against Trump was a business decision. If that is indeed the case, it suggests that the players in the NFL have more leverage than they might have imagined and that the balance of power may just be swinging in their favor. Some commentators are now urging the players to demand that Kaepernick be signed by a team; if the former San Francisco 49er is back on the sidelines before this season is out, it will be confirmation that labor is ascendant in the NFL.
Meanwhile, what we saw in Prague last weekend was not a shift in tennis’s balance of power, but rather, a further demonstration of the power that the players already wield. As you no doubt know, the Laver Cup was the brainchild of Roger Federer and his longtime agent Tony Godsick. Although both denied that they were seeking to usurp the Davis Cup, player dissatisfaction with the Davis Cup created an opening for a new team competition, and the players, led by Federer (and Godsick), have now filled it. The Laver Cup’s resoundingly successful debut showed that the tennis world was ready for something new, and it also underscored the extent to which the talent now calls the shots in tennis.
It is a story that goes back to the dawn of the Open era in the late 1960s, when the grand slam tournaments yielded to reality and allowed professionals to compete. The Wimbledon boycott of 1973, which saw nearly all of the top men’s players skip the tournament after the All England Club, acting at the behest of Yugoslavia’s tennis federation, barred the Yugoslav Niki Pilic from competing because he had refused to participate in a Davis Cup match, was an even more significant milestone. The boycott proved that the players were prepared to take collective action to defend their own, even if it meant sitting out the most prestigious tournament of all, and from that moment on, power has been steadily accruing to them. The recent huge increases we’ve seen in prize money at the four majors—the total pot at this year’s US Open was $50 million, double what it was just five years ago—is testament to the bargaining power the players now enjoy. The players, led by Federer, had demanded a greater share of the revenues, and the tournaments ultimately had no choice but to accede to their demands.
The Laver Cup is an example of what can happen if player concerns go unheeded. For years, players had complained about the format of the Davis Cup—the fact that it ate up four weekends of the year, that two of the four weekends came right after majors, etc. The top players took part only sporadically, which underscored the competition’s diminished appeal and the need for reform. But instead of making changes, the International Tennis Federation dithered, and its dithering created an opportunity for Federer and Godsick. It is way too soon to know whether the Laver Cup will eclipse the Davis Cup, but the enthusiasm with which players and fans alike greeted the Laver Cup suggests that the ITF now has an even bigger problem on its hands. The lesson? In tennis, the players are going to get what they want, one way or another.