When Sonny Bill Williams left the Bulldogs to play rugby in Toulon, he was called a traitor – not just for abandoning rugby league but also for the audacity of demanding more money for his work.
Williams, who says he came from a family that "didn't have much", was never one to toe the line. "I think players this day and age have to look after themselves and their families first and foremost," he said in 2008. A few months later, he was on the plane to France in one of the most controversial NRL exits in history.
Williams' entire career has offered an insight into the rising tension between a certain ideal of professional athlete – of loyalty, modesty, and above all, playing for the love of club and country over money – and a generation of sports labour radicals, born out of the internet and a global financial meltdown, who started to realise that the only ones looking out for their best interests is themselves.
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Few athletes in the modern era have a more acute understanding of the value of player power than Ardie Savea, the All Black superstar who last week made headlines after he expressed a desire to follow Williams' footsteps and switch codes to rugby league.
So much about that particular news story felt very, for lack of a better word, millennial: how the news broke from a podcast instead of a traditional media interview, the curious timing of Savea's contract with NZ Rugby which expires at the end of next year, and his desire to make a difference both on and off the field.
Speaking on the Ice Project podcast, hosted by former Warrior Issac John, the 26-year-old Savea said he was "low key" considering a move to the NRL next year.
"100 per cent I want to play rugby league," he said. "I think they do a lot more in terms of off the field stuff ... and also, just a new challenge. I want to test myself.
"Learning a whole new game and seeing if I can dominate or play the way I play in union, if I can do that in league, excites me. Seeing guys like Sonny do it and how that's benefited him, that kind of pondered my mind."
We're seeing something of an athlete revolution. The social media era has given athletes like Savea more agency and ability to control the narrative – for better and for worse. Gone are the days when the players' voice was framed solely through the myopic pen of white middle-aged men in the media. Twenty-first century athletes – who are as studied in the machinations of late capitalism as cardio and weight training – are the most business savvy generation in the history of sport.
If you had been paying attention to Savea's social media presence of late, his cross-code bombshell wasn't really that surprising. Apart from his reputation as a social media early adopter – from posting dances on TikTok to hosting his own podcast – Savea has also never shied away from speaking out about labour issues in rugby.
"Corporations will be in trouble if athletes realise 'they' are the business," he said in a series of tweets late last year. "Players discussing with each other what they earn in their contract = Players having power & leverage to negotiate more [money] = Player power.
"I remember getting the loyalty speech at college camps about professional footy … I've realised now – it's a business."
Corporations will be in trouble if athletes realise 'they' are a business.— ardie savea (@ardiesavea) November 28, 2019
It's rare to see athletes, especially rugby players, speak so candidly about the business side of their craft. But in a time of concussion and CTE hyper-awareness, it's easy to see why rugby stars – who regularly put their bodies and minds on the line – are starting to demand to be given what they're worth.
Savea's latest indifference to employment loyalty comes during a rising tide of All Black anxiety around player retention. It all sets up a potentially fascinating future bidding war for Savea's services – if the All Blacks loose forward continues to be serious about his switch to league.
If Savea decides to stay, he has the potential to become the best player in world rugby. If he leaves, he has made it known that he will do so on his own terms. And NZ Rugby, in the words of Savea, could be in trouble.