Michele A. Roberts has started her new job as the executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association. The former D.C. public defender immediately set the tone for what is sure to be contentious collective bargaining with NBA owners.
“There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There would be no money,” said Roberts, who was once referred to as “the finest pure trial lawyer in Washington.” “Thirty more owners can come in and nothing will change. These guys, the players go? The game will change, so let’s stop pretending.”
Roberts told ESPN the Magazine that she is adamantly opposed to a salary cap, which has been in place in the NBA since 1984.
She says that she is preparing the league’s players for what could either be a lockout imposed by the owners or a strike by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the players when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2017.
Roberts 58, who is the first woman to ever lead a North American sports union, grew up in the Bronx, New York. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and a juris doctorate from the University of California Berkeley in 1980 before landing a job as a public defender.
Known throughout the legal world as an outstanding trial attorney, the Washingtonian named Roberts the finest pure trial lawyer in Washington and also praised her for ability to connect with jurors.
“It’s not hard if you start with respecting the jury,” she told the Washingtonian in 2011. “You become a juror. They’re reasonable and they’re smart and they’re honest. Don’t ‘BS’ them. Don’t think you can avoid answering. You can’t ignore bad evidence. You can’t talk down to them. You can’t impress them with fancy language. You have to speak to them honestly and simply.”
Her mentor, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., told USA Today that Roberts, a Wizards season ticket holder, likes to express her opinion.
“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,” said Ogletree, 61. “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.”
In gearing up for her battle with Commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s 30 owners, Roberts has made it clear that the NBA-imposed salary cap, which precludes team owners from spending above a certain amount on player salaries, must be done away with.
The current cap limits each team to about $58.6 million in salaries and that’s expected to rise to $87 million after the 2016 season. The league and its players also evenly split basketball related income and the NBA, already coming off a $930 million television deal, recently inked a new deal that will fill its coffers to the tune of $24 billion over the next nine years. It’s those numbers that have fueled Roberts’ desire to rid the league of a salary cap.
“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. “It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”
Silver countered that the salary cap does not violate U.S. law because, rather than teams competing with each other, the league finds itself competing with other forms of entertainment.
“We couldn’t disagree more with [Roberts’] statements,” Silver said in a statement.
“The NBA’s success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players,” he said. Silver “No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or un-American in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employees. In fact, that’s the norm.”
Still, everyone from New York to Washington has been put on notice that, in Roberts, there is a new sheriff in town and she has arrived with guns a blazing.
“No one wants to say it out loud, but it’s a monopoly,” Roberts said. “And were there alternatives, they wouldn’t get away with it. I’ll give the league credit— they have done a great job controlling the narrative.”