NBA players’ union chief is ‘a woman who’s not going to back down’
As a child, Michele Roberts liked to tag along with her mom to court. Nobody was in trouble.
Watching criminal cases was merely a source of free entertainment for Elsie Roberts, a housekeeper on welfare who raised her five children alone in the Melrose Houses projects in New York’s Bronx borough.
“I got wind of it and I started watching court with her,” Michele Roberts recalled recently by telephone. “I didn’t know what I was watching most of the time, but I enjoyed it.”
Not all of it. Roberts was struck by the pitiable quality of the public trial lawyers who represented low-income defendants. That was the spark that led to a three-decade career as a prominent public defender and civil and white-collar litigant who often championed the underprivileged, including death-row inmates at San Quentin.
Roberts, 58, now advocates for multimillionaires as the new executive director of the NBA Players Assn. and the first woman to lead a major professional sports union in North America.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of instances in which her current clients feel aggrieved.
The players are expected to seek what they say would be a more equitable split of basketball-related income in the wake of exploding valuations for NBA franchises and a record $24-billion television contract that have made green a universal team color.
“There’s a ton of money coming in,” said Roberts, who has been on the job since late September, “so no one can claim poverty and therefore take the position to try to prevent some concessions for the players.”
Roberts said her office has begun to engage the league in discussions that could result in modifications to the collective bargaining agreement before either side would need to decide whether to exercise the opt-out clause that could lead to a lockout starting in the summer of 2017. The sides would need to inform each other of their decision by December 2016.
“Adam Silver has said he doesn’t want to see a lockout,” Roberts said, referring to the NBA commissioner. “The owners have said they don’t want to see a lockout. My players, they want to play. We’re all on the same page there.”
The most divisive issue in negotiations figures to be the division of income, which tilted heavily toward the owners in the last labor agreement. The players went from receiving 57% of basketball-related income to a roughly 50-50 split, though owners remain on the hook for massive operating expenses.
Other issues could be contentious as well. Roberts recently told ESPN The Magazine she would be in favor of eliminating the salary cap and maximum player salaries, as well as minimum-age requirements. Roberts said she would ultimately defer to the players’ wishes on the issues in negotiations with the league.
Roberts’ interview with ESPN included gasp-inducing comments about the salary cap being “un-American” and the ability to replace owners compared to the players.
“I was not attempting to cast aspersions on their success,” Roberts told The Times, “but let me point out that there are no shortage of people who would love to own an NBA team and we have to admit that there is a shortage of spectacular basketball players who could compete in the NBA, so I don’t know that anything I said was as controversial as people think I was.”
Silver disagreed with Roberts’ stance in a recent statement, saying the NBA’s success was based on the collective efforts of owners, team employees and players. He also pointed out that the salary-cap system, agreed to by players and owners, had stimulated an unprecedented era of growth for the league and player salaries.
NBA players will make an average of $6 million in salary and benefits this season, an all-time high. That figure is expected to rise to $8 million after the new TV deal takes effect for the 2016-17 season, NBA officials with knowledge of the situation said.
Players also stand to receive 51% of the basketball-related income that season under the sliding scale in the CBA that calls for compensation to increase as revenues increase. They currently make a tick over 50% of the income.
Roberts’ aggressive stance has been hailed by players as a welcome change after the concessions made by her predecessor, Billy Hunter, in the last CBA. Hunter was ousted in February 2013 over allegations of misappropriation of funds and nepotism, among other contentions.
“She’s a woman who’s not going to back down and she understands the task at hand and I think the thing that makes her so valuable to us is how selfless she is,” said Clippers point guard Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union. “It’s not about her being in the spotlight, it’s all about getting the job done and I’m excited that we have her.
“That would be nice to have no salary cap and different things like that because guys want to go out there and, as much as possible, get their full value.”
Roberts didn’t shy away from her gender during the interview process for the union job; in fact, she highlighted it while pitching herself to players in Las Vegas.
“I made sure I brought it up and talked about it and what it meant and that I wouldn’t be an issue at all,” Roberts said. “Look, everyone knows I’m a woman. I have joked about it on occasion. I’ve been the facilitator of the joke.
“But the guys, when they speak to me, they don’t talk to me about how it feels to be a woman. They’re talking about the business of basketball, about the issues that have been raised.”
Roberts said her interest in leading the players’ union stemmed for her lifelong love of basketball. She shared a Washington Wizards season ticket package with friends.
“I’ve always loved the game and probably loved the players more than the game,” Roberts said, “so seeing them and hearing them talk about wanting to rebuild their union, the more I thought about it, the more I became interested.”
Roberts is currently on what she described as a getting-to-know-you tour of teams that has included recent stops in Memphis, Tenn., Atlanta and Cleveland. She said she would eventually visit the Lakers and Clippers during a West Coast trip.
Roberts has already made eight new hires in her New York office, expanding her staff to 22 employees plus nine retired players based elsewhere.
Her hope is to be a pioneer in excelling at her job, not breaking barriers.
“I’m not spending a lot of time focused on the fact that I’m a woman or African American,” Roberts said. “I’m just trying really hard to be really good.”
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