Michele Roberts, the person, believes an age limit that keeps 18-year-olds out of the NBA is un-American. She also believes a maximum salary in a thriving industry is abhorrent. And she feels a system set up to prevent owners from overspending is flat-out ludicrous.
Again, those are the opinions of Michele Roberts, the person. Not Michele Roberts, the new boss of the National Basketball Players Association.
In her new job, max salaries, salary caps, luxury taxes and age limits are economic realities that are part of the landscape Roberts must now navigate as she moves into her role as executive director of the union.
She is going to have to learn to work with those rules – or fight to change them.
Will she fight? Or will she work with Commissioner Adam Silver on system changes that work for everyone in the new cash-rich NBA?
That was one of the foremost questions I had on my mind as I sat down Wednesday for a Q & A with Roberts at the union’s soon-to-be-vacated offices in Harlem (they are moving back to midtown Manhattan, where they were located before former director Billy Hunter decided to move headquarters closer to his home uptown).
Roberts is going to be a tough nut for Silver to crack.
Never before has a woman led a professional sports union, and rarely were any women present at the bargaining table during NBA labor talks over the past 20 years. She has met four times in person with Silver, and it has not gone unnoticed by her that Silver brought a female colleague to their last three meetings.
Roberts is already on record as saying she is preparing to opt out of the current labor agreement by Dec. 15, 2016 — the deadline for either side to sent things back to the bargaining table, perhaps setting the league up for a lockout in the summer of 2017. So she has 26 months to figure out what is the best course of action to take, and she is emphatic that the decision will not be hers and hers alone. It will be a decision made by the union’s executive committee.
Here is our interview:
CHRIS SHERIDAN: “What’s the toughest negotiation you’ve ever been involved in as a lawyer?”
MICHELE ROBERTS: “The toughest I had was a homicide, where a client killed his wife or fiancee, the mother of his child, and confessed, and they had the murder weapon. There was no death penalty in D.C., but there was life without parole, and the guy was maybe 23 or 24. And I had nothing. Nothing. No leverage at all, and I wanted to get a plea offer to second-degree murder, because first-degree murder was mandatory 30 years to life. And I knew I couldn’t win. It was the most unsympathetic case in the world, and the prosecutor I had beaten in court earlier, so she was not throwing me any favors. And what I somehow managed to do, as it was a horrible domestic violence case where he literally killed her because he loved her, I somehow managed to convey that to the prosecutor. The guy had no record, he was kind of a blue collar guy, he just fell in love with a woman that just didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore. And he just killed her. I convinced her that was what happened, and she gave him second-degree murder. Now, turns out he got 25 to life, he’s probably still in there or died in prison. But I remember thinking, my cat can do as good a job as I can, because I’ve got nothing. So that was the toughest.”
CS: “What are your thoughts on the age limit, restricting the age someone can come into the NBA to 19, instead of 18, as it once was.”
MR: “The word that is troubling to me, generally speaking, is ‘restriction.’ My DNA is offended by the notion that someone should not be able to make a living because he needs to have been alive a year longer. That’s Michele, not Michele NBPA executive director.”
CS: “So you are sympathetic to 18-year olds?”
MR: “I am. I know what it means to want to be able to make a living and support your family. (Emmanuel Mudiay) can’t play in his country because he’s not old enough. That makes no sense to me.”
CS: “Your thoughts on the max salary?”
MR: “I have difficulty with rules that suggest that for some reason, in this space, we are not going to allow you to do what is ordinarily allowed in every other aspect of American life – you can work and get compensated at the level that someone thinks you’re worth being compensated at. And for all the reasons that it might be reasonable, it still – as a base – the premise offends me. So for me, there needs to be a justification that is substantial. And I’m told that in large part it’s because there’s an inability on the part of some owners to control their check-writing habits. So that’s where I am. Now, there’s a history that led up to max contracts, and I’m not going to pretend it’s not significant. But if you ask me off the cuff, that’s my response.”
CS: “What about having rookies on a salary scale?”
MR: “It’s got to be consistent. If the genesis was that people were not able to control or limit show much they would be paying someone new to the league, is the answer to somehow artificially impose a scale? That would not have been my answer. And I would support any decision to revoke that schedule, but again, that’s Michele speaking.”
CS: “What do you think of the union’s giveback in the last CBA negotiations from 57 percent of revenues to 49-51 percent?”
MR: “I can certainly appreciate why (the players) are not happy. That’s a lot of money. And it’s hard for me to be critical because I wasn’t in the room, so I cannot say that it was something that was avoidable. But it’s certainly not a happy turn of events, and I get why the players are not of the view that they came out winners.”
CS: “Do you think it was justified by the fact that teams were losing money?”
MR: “Teams weren’t losing money.”
CS: “That was what they were telling people.”
MR: “Yes, that was the narrative. And I think recent events have proved that just wasn’t true.”
(UPDATE: The NBA is taking issue with this portrayal. From spokesman Mike Bass: ” “The NBA shared the complete league and team audited financials as well as our state and federal tax returns with the players union and those financials demonstrate the substantial and indisputable losses the league incurred during the last collective bargaining agreement.”)
CS: “What do you think of the way Billy Hunter ran the union?”
MR: “If he ran it the way the Paul Weiss report reflected he ran it, then he ran it poorly.”
CS: “What are some of the things he did wrong?”
MR: “He didn’t understand who he worked for. He worked for the union; he didn’t work for his family. He didn’t work to promote his own interests. He worked for the union, and the things he did clearly were not designed to affectuate the best interests of the union.”
CS: “Tell me three things that the players want.”
MR: “I can tie it up into this whole notion of fairness, but I think at the end of the day they want to be respected for the fact that they are what makes this game successful, and one of the ways to show that is to allow for fair compensation,. and any limitations on their ability to make as much money as either the teams or anyone else is prepared to pay them is unfair. You know, we don’t restrict the revenue that the owners are able to enjoy. They share it with us, but apart from that there aren’t these overlays that restrict how they can generate new revenue, or what they can do with the revenue. So I think when the players talk about wanting to be treated fairly, they want to be treated as the persons who are responsible for the product. I mean, they create the product.”
CS: “Guaranteed contracts. Billy Hunter used to say, ‘That’s the holy grail. They can take that out of my dead hands at my funeral.’ How do you feel about them?”
MR: “Well, I think you’ve identified something that Billy and I have in common. I think Kevin (Garnett) said it best: ‘Get off of that, Mark (Cuban). That’s not happening. That’s not changing.'”
CS: “Are you going to opt out?”
MR: “We are preparing to opt out. I mean it’s not my call., because unlike Billy I don’t think I run the union. This union is run by the executive committee, I serve at their pleasure, and I do what they command I do. I advise, and I will recommend. But at the end of the day, it’s not Michele Roberts saying to the executive committee: ‘Look, guys, get ready. We’re opting out.’ It doesn’t work that way. So it’s not my call, but in the event the call is made, we will be ready. And we are preparing to opt out.”
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.