5 for Friday: Michele Roberts, new NBA players association executive director
Michele Roberts’ four-year term as the new head of the National Basketball Players Association doesn’t officially start until Sept. 22, but her life has been going nonstop since the news first broke six weeks ago. A successful and highly regarded litigator at D.C. law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Roberts will soon become the first woman to lead a professional sports league’s players union in the United States. In a profession that boasts a history of such high-profile figures as Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr and (her predecessor) Billy Hunter, Roberts is about to be thrust from relative anonymity to a powerful position responsible for guiding the athletes who propel a $5 billion (and growing) league.
Roberts, who’ll be moving from D.C. back to her native New York City, spoke with FOXSports.com by phone late last week as she was running through an airport terminal. She had just found housing in New York the day before — "It was not an easy chore!" — and was fully in the midst of transitioning to her new job (her old employer has already taken down her profile page), but Roberts opened up on a number of important issues for this week’s 5 for Friday. She spoke about the NBA’s opportunities for growth worldwide, what she thinks of new NBA commissioner Adam Silver and just what exactly needs to be done to avoid another work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement could be opted out of (by the players or owners) in three years.
1. MALINOWSKI: You’ve had an incredibly successful career focusing on criminal and civil litigation: white-collar, racketeering, liability cases and so forth. This is clearly a different field you’re entering, but what skills and experiences do you foresee bringing over, as you transition to this new position?
ROBERTS: Well, I should say a couple of things. One, to be fair, I haven’t done any criminal litigation for about eight or nine years. But with regards to the kind of litigation I have been doing, I have been representing large clients, Fortune 500 companies, for years. As you can imagine, when they come calling and need legal assistance, it’s because of a pretty significant assortment of complicated problems. But at the end of the day, what I have been doing, and what I think is easily transferrable to my new position, is representing clients that have multifaceted problems that typically involve larger numbers of litigators.
I view as what the executive director of the NBPA has to do is that you’ve got any number of issues, any number of people addressing things, that need to be resolved and that needs to be done — at least as how I intend to do it — vis a vis a team. In other words, I’m not going to be doing this alone. When it’s assembled, we’ll be a team of professionals with different skill sets that will come together to address a variety of issues.
The goal in my old world was to avoid headlong litigation. In my new world: lockout.
I’m not being naive here. I know sports is a different world, but frankly I think have a skill set that’ll make for a good executive director.
2. MALINOWSKI: There have been some very public, very outspoken union leaders in this country’s sports history, people like Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, just to name a couple. Is there a model or an influence that you aspire to emulate? Do you envision yourself in that kind of mold — someone who is not hesitant to hold a press conference and step in front of a mic — or is your style perhaps more behind-the-scenes and quietly efficient?
ROBERTS: First off, I’m not going to try to emulate anyone. But I think Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr did tremendous jobs for, respectively, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to be anything but myself.
But even with my personal style, this new job will be, by definition, very different from my job as a lawyer. I don’t intend to be anything than who I am. I’m honest and a good communicator. I’m certainly not going to shy away from engaging debate or discussion. But there’s no persona that I intend to adopt, other than someone who is an honest advocate for the players.
3. MALINOWSKI: You grew up in the South Bronx, rooting for those Knicks teams with Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed. I also happened to grow up rooting for the Knicks, but that was during in the mid-’90s and they were just slightly more successful in your era. What was that time like, and how did that shape your sports fandom going forward? And how do you look at international growth?
ROBERTS: You have to bear in mind that I’ve been dealing with that world through the prism of two older brothers who spent so much time watching the NBA. They loved the Knicks, and we grew up with one television, and when you have two older brothers and you live in New York in the South Bronx, you watch a lot of basketball.
That was the greatest time for me as a fan. But it’s probably only because it was the first time. I’ll never have the chance to replicate that fabulous feeling of watching Willis Reed with no knee come on the court and the Garden goes crazy and my brothers are crying with joy. But I haven’t stopped watching the game since then.
So I came to it involuntarily, but — and you know this — once you start watching the game, it’s infectious. That was the greatest time for me as a fan. But it’s probably only because it was the first time. I’ll never have the chance to replicate that fabulous feeling of watching Willis Reed in Game 7 come on the court and the Garden goes crazy and my brothers are crying with joy. But I haven’t stopped watching the game since then. I agree, New York’s been in a bit of a trench since then (laughs), but that’s how it goes. Part of me laments giving up having one team to root for, but now I’ve got 30. I win, no matter what.
I think everyone is pretty cognizant of the international possibilities. I think the NBA has something of a headstart compared to Major League Baseball and the National Football League, and I will commend the moves they’ve made to stay ahead of the game. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
And as you see our management team develop, you’ll see an emphasis on international development because, it’s safe to say, "there’s gold in them thar hills." And the popularity of the NBA has never been better. So I see great opportunities for the game, and we’re excited to be a part of that process.
4. MALINOWSKI: You are the first woman to be named the head of a major American professional sports union. What does that accomplishment mean to you personally, and why do you suppose it took this long?
ROBERTS: Well, as far as why it took this long, I don’t worry about that. But I applaud the players for their maturity and foresight for not allowing the fact that I am a woman from hiring a person that can do the job.
As far as what it means to me, I’m very, very proud, and I do love hearing from both men and women about how glad they are. But I don’t plan on spending a lot of time thinking about it because I’m not going to allow it to paralyze any of us from engaging in what needs to be done.
5. MALINOWSKI: There was a lot of public frustration among all sides, even after the 2011-12 lockout ended. I recognize that you can’t go into too many specfics, but where do you see the state of labor peace between the players and owners right now, and what must be done to avoid another work stoppage three years from now?
We’re not going to cry about who did what and who’s wrong or who’s right. But we’re going to be smart, and I think that with Commissioner Silver, we’ve got an honest partner and we will see what common ground there is and we’ll get there. I would like to think there’ll be no stoppage on my watch, but obviously I can’t make that call.
ROBERTS: Well, what I will say is, with Adam Silver — and even before I got to my current position — I’ve been very happy with the position he’s taken as to what sort of relationship he wants to have with the players, and I remain optimistic hearing him say that he abhors any kind of work stoppage going forward, that he wants to begin his relationship with the players with a feeling that there was common ground to avoid another work stoppage.
Having said that, I’m not a fool. This is a game, but it’s also a very popular business, and the NBA, among the things that have to be addressed, is looking at some significant additional dollars that will be probably be coming into the game, especially from new TV contracts. So I’m excited to get started and am continuing to get up to speed with respect to the history of CBA negotiations and, with the respect to the last one, doing an autopsy to figure out what happened and to begin to prepare today for tomorrow.
So, you know, we’re all grown-ups. We’re not going to cry about who did what and who’s wrong or who’s right. But we’re going to be smart, and I think that with Commissioner Silver, we’ve got an honest partner and we will see what common ground there is and we’ll get there. I would like to think there’ll be no stoppage on my watch, but obviously I can’t make that call.
But having said that, I’m optimistic.