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Keith Strudler: Life’s Great Awards

Not all sports awards are created the same. For example, if you win, say, the most improved on your high school JV tennis team, that’s fine. But if you win the Super Bowl MVP award, that’s better. With the ubiquity of awards and requisite ceremonies, most people are rightfully judicious on which commendations to cherish, and which to simply accept. In other words, some go on your wall, while others straight to the basement, if the trash.

Several NBA athletes will be confronted with that very decision, at least the selected few who received one of the inaugural NBA Players Association’s “Player Awards,” given by players, to players at a ceremony Sunday evening that aired on BET last night. Unlike traditional NBA awards, well really awards in all sports leagues, only athletes could vote on these awards, as opposed to the typical voting populace of sports writers and broadcasters. The players’ argument is that no one knows athletic excellence better than they, those who both embody its very currency and play with and against it every night. It’s the difference between observational and native research methods, the latter offering a far more insightful, if at times biased perspective.

The players gave awards in somewhat distinctive categories, including descriptives such as “hardest to guard” and “player you’d secretly like to have on your team” and “coach you most want to play for.” They also gave off-the-court accolades, including “man of the year,” which went to Ray Allen for his extensive community work – and came with a video tribute by President Obama. So, regardless of whether you and I are paying attention, the President is, which make for a nice debut.

Unfortunately for the Players Association, quite a few – dare I say the majority – of high profile athletes sat out the event, in many cases having a proxy accept an award on their behalf. This included LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who have been quite visible in the past at other affairs like the ESPYs, where one network plays both judge and jury – and broadcast partner. So at best the Players Awards is the Screen Actors Guild, a long way from the Oscars. And I’m being generous.

Leaving aside the evening’s attendance or even award categories, the larger narrative here is one of professional athletes taking greater interest and potential ownership of things that happen outside the fields and courts of play. These NBA athletes, led by their players union, are doing things typically left to other professionals – league administrators, owners, journalists, and so on. That’s the impetus behind the Players Tribune, a new online publication founded by Derek Jeter that basically turns athletes into journalists. It’s twitter, long form, I suppose, and it cuts out the middleman and, one might assume, the business model that came along with it. It’s one thing for the Post to compete against a blogger. It’s entirely another to go up against Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan or any of the other pros who’ve recently scripted pieces for the periodical. Professional athletes, NBA ones in particularly, are cautiously attempting a shift from ballers to brands and businesses, complete with ancillary revenue streams and independent marketing strategies. This could potentially make them more powerful as they enter what most expect to be a contentious negotiation with owners over the next year or so. Where professional athletes have historically been happy to be simply a part of the business – albeit a well compensated part – they now are far more interested and well positioned to be more than simply labor. Whether they’ll effectively monetize that reality is yet to be seen. But don’t underestimate their intentions, which could be punctuated by an NBA players strike in 2017, as the league is at a historic apex of talent and interest.

Of course, all this ambition is often easier said than done – or at least done effectively. Owners and administrators have both vast wealth and power, not to mention well-oiled machinery. The NBA under commissioner David Stern and now Adam Silver could squeeze a dollar from drachma. So while players might fancy their products strong replacements – like an award ceremony and online magazine – they’ve got a long way to go. Remember, having a pen doesn’t make you an author, any more than having a basketball makes you a baller. So consider it all a work in progress.

But most importantly, the players themselves have to buy into that ethos. As long as they’d rather attend an ESPN function than their own, the status quo remains. When everyone, including LeBron, values their own award more than someone else’s, well, then it’s time to reconsider the org chart. Until then, know that not all awards are created the same. 

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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