When it comes to our players having caps on salary, and the revenue generated has none, Roberts states, “It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”
Michele Roberts, the NBA players’ union executive director, on Wednesday questioned several of the principles that for decades have governed owner-player relations in the league, objecting to the concept of a salary cap while making clear she’d push for much more than a 50-50 split of basketball-related income.
“Why don’t we have the owners play half the games?” Roberts said, speaking in her Harlem office to ESPN The Magazine. “There would be no money if not for the players.”
“Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money,” she added, pausing for emphasis. “Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”
But given the context of a nine-year, $24 billion TV deal set to begin in 2016, and the players’ ability to opt out of the league’s collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season, Roberts’ relatively radical perspective could prove to be just as profound a change.
“I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because,” she said, talking about a salary cap — a collectively bargained policy that, in its current form, has constrained team spending in the NBA since 1984-85. “It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”
Roberts, a prominent attorney who will finish up her work for the prestigious law firm Skadden, Arps, does not have an extensive background in labor or sports but through work or pleasure is familiar with both. “Her background is in negotiation, it’s in changing minds and it’s in listening ability and all of those skills will be very important to the union,” Ogletree said. “People will have a chance to see a woman who is well-prepared, willing to push for what’s right and has the ability to understand what it means for the long haul.”
All those factors are very important for the NBPA, which has struggled since the 2011 lockout and resulting collective bargaining agreement. Former executive director Billy Hunter was fired during All-Star weekend in 2013 after it was discovered he mismanaged union business, and the union has been without a permanent director since.
She sold the players on two key points: her personal story (growing up in a Bronx project) and her basic vision of a union.
“The players’ vision of the union is that it belongs to them and it should exist to promote, protect and advance their interest and not any other stakeholder or any other person,” Roberts said. “What they wanted in an executive director was someone who understood that and would not consider any deviation from that vision.”
Based in Washington, D.C., Roberts, who will turn 58 in September, has worked at Skadden, Arps for the past three years. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 1977 and California-Berkeley’s law school in 1980.
Roberts was raised in a housing project in the South Bronx. She attended a prep school in the New York City suburbs. She earned her B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1977 and her J.D. from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley in 1980. She began her career in 1980 at Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. She served in that role for eight years, rising to the chief of the trial division. She was mentored by attorney Charles Ogletree.
Roberts was named executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in July 2014. She succeeded Billy Hunter in the position, who was ousted for incompetence and nepotism. She received 32 of 36 votes.
Roberts is an adjunct faculty member at Harvard Law School and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. TheWashingtonian once referred to her as the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington.”