NFL players are expected to sacrifice everything—from their body to their mental health—for the game and for their team. Yet there are more and more signs that players are starting to understand their leverage. Their increased awareness might be born out of professional jealousy. Brown’s contract with the Steelers contained no guaranteed money over the next three seasons. NFL players look over at their NBA brethren and see that they have guaranteed contracts—and far more say-so with their team and in league matters.
Read: The NFL’s concussion cover-up
There is also a wide salary disparity between the leagues. In 2019, the Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford is slated to make $29.5 million, the highest salary in the NFL. But that’s not even Mike Conley money. Conley, the Memphis Grizzlies point guard, is making a little more than $30 million this season.
It’s noteworthy that a few weeks before his trade, Brown appeared on LeBron James’s HBO talk show, The Shop. The point of the The Shop is to create a keep-it-a-buck vibe; guests like Brown can have candid conversations with other black superstar athletes and entertainers who face similar problems. The most revealing conversation during Brown’s appearance on the show came when Brown, James, the rapper 2 Chainz, the actor Jamie Foxx, and the NBA’s Anthony Davis spoke candidly about realizing their own power.
“As the CEO of my own business, I got the power,” said Davis, who also is dealing with serious criticism after telling his team, the New Orleans Pelicans, in late January that he wished to be traded. “I’m doing what I want to do and not what somebody’s telling me to do,” Davis added.
Davis’s feeling of empowerment owes something to James, who—through the way he’s handled his own free agency, his production company, and other Hollywood ventures—has given this generation of superstar athletes a blueprint for controlling their own careers. NBA players like Davis and James, unlike Brown under his Steelers contract, have what many would call “screw you” money.
“The NFL is different from the NBA because not every guy is making that top dollar,” Brown said on The Shop. “So you might get a guy who, he’s a good player, but he’s not getting paid as much. So his opinion doesn’t matter that much because he knows: ‘Shit, I don’t have that much value, so I’m not [about to] fuck up what I got.’”
Read: The white flight from football
The way Brown left the Steelers was messy—but justifiable. During the final week of the season, there were reports that Brown didn’t practice following a spat with Roethlisberger. That resulted in the wide receiver being benched for the Steelers’ finale against the Bengals. That, Brown said on The Shop, is when he realized that his relationship with the Steelers had permanently changed. And so he acted accordingly, demanding a trade.