We watch sport for the players. Whether it's anticipating an intriguing positional showdown, pondering the prospects of a budding star or emulating an idol in the backyard, it's the men and women wearing a uniform who keep us enthralled.

So why then does a concept like player power still come with negative connotations?

Why do we regularly question the right of athletes to do what they please with their careers, often siding instead with faceless executives or obscenely-rich paymasters?

Why are some players celebrated for taking a stand, while others are essentially instructed to do as they're told?


This week, we saw two disparate examples in New Zealand sport of players being lauded or lambasted for entirely personal decisions.

On Monday, Abby Erceg, the most-capped player in Football Ferns history, opted to become the clearest voice in the chorus of discontent that followed New Zealand's insipid display against Japan a day earlier.

Erceg retired from international football last month but her 133 caps provided all the authority needed to launch a stinging rebuke on coach Andreas Heraf's methods, saying the Austrian was actively damaging the Football Ferns' progress. The former captain was celebrated for inserting herself into the debate - and quite correctly, too, given her knowledge of the women's game in this country would dwarf Heraf and most of his critics combined.

But fans are less inclined to applaud when an athlete's free will happens to contradict with their wishes.

Steven Adams, as can probably be ascertained by listening for a fleeting moment to him, seems to care little about what others think.

This country's greatest basketballer has assumed an unapologetic agency over his career and, given he was this month listed by Forbes in the world's top 100 highest-earning athletes, that approach appears to be working.

And yet when Adams this week once more turned down the Tall Blacks, some pundits were incensed at a decision that has nothing to do with them.

Adams has steadfastly refused to compromise his day job - playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder - in service of his country.


We can debate the merits of that position but it would be foolish to dispute Adams' right to choose his own adventure, or question his patriotism because he does something disagreeable.

Adams deserves to possess all the power in this equation. It's his off-season, holiday, body, livelihood, $100 million contract. His call.

But something about that equation still makes many queasy.

Before professionalism, before the explosion of television revenue that quickly trickled down to the working class, players were much more subservient in the battle for power.

And it would be unsurprising if some supporters' discomfort over the rise of the individual is due to the role rugby plays in dominating New Zealand sport, a code where the power still leans away from labour and towards management.

The All Blacks remain an untouchable behemoth on this country's sporting landscape, with the lure of the black jersey enough for many players to put themselves second. Some seize the initiative and the offshore money before being summarily shut out of representing their country. But most put team first and leave their livelihoods to the whims of the national selectors, an admirable policy, to be sure, but one that strips them of influence.

And it seems when it comes to someone like Adams, similar is expected. But athletes should be allowed to exercise agency however they please, whether by walking away and lashing out, like Erceg, or saying nothing when nothing needs to be said, like Adams.

Watching the likes of Erceg and Adams are why we are so passionate about sport. It's not coaches, not national organisations, not owners. Athletes provide our biggest thrills. We should allow them the biggest slice of the power pie.