NEW YORK — Has it been what you expected? Sitting in her office on the corner of 126th and Lenox, Michele Roberts smiled at the question. At her old job, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a prestigious D.C. law firm, Roberts wouldn’t make national headlines for calling the NBA’s salary cap system “un-American.” She wouldn’t have had to publicly scoff at NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s suggestion that “roughly a third” of NBA teams are still losing money. She wouldn’t have made waves for declaring that NBA owners were replaceable.
At her old job, Roberts, the recently appointed Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, could have just been a Washington Wizards season ticket holder, an opinionated fan.
“Things are a little more hectic than I expected them to be,” Roberts told SI.com. “Some of the stuff in the media I didn’t expect. But I wanted to put together a management team, and that is happening. That I planned. The other stuff that I didn’t plan on, the media stuff, that’s been a little disruptive.”
No question, Roberts has ruffled a few feathers at Olympic Tower, the NBA’s home office 70-some blocks down the street. The NBA would prefer not to talk about the summer of 2017, when both the league and the union can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. And why would they? The league is thriving. The product on the floor is strong, franchise values continue to soar and the ink is barely dry on a $24 billion TV deal.
A lockout? The league would rather discuss Kobe Bryant’s shot selection.
Frankly, Roberts would too. But these days she doesn’t have that luxury. The perception is that the union got its clock cleaned during the 2011 negotiations, when the players saw its share of basketball-related income (BRI) slashed from 57 percent to 50, a cut that will represent more than $1 billion shifting from the players to the owners by the end of the season, according to union officials. “It’s hard not to look at that and not say the owners won,” Roberts said. “Players certainly feel that way, and I think they are right.”
More than two years stand between a prospective work stoppage, but already battle lines are being drawn. In a recent interview with GQ, Silver cited a harder salary cap and a 20-year-old age minimum as two things he wished the league had. Roberts -- who spoke to SI.com before the commissioner’s most recent comments were made public -- made it clear those were two issues she held a firm position on.“I’m adamantly opposed to [raising the age minimum],” Roberts said. “I’ve been practicing law for 30 years. One of the beauties of being in that job is that I can practice until I lose my mind or die. That is not the case with athletes. You have a limited life to make money as a basketball player. Anything that limits those opportunities is distressing to me. I view [the age minimum] as just another device that serves to limit a players' ability to make a living.”
“[The owners] are never going to stop until they get a hard cap. With the new TV deal, I’d like to think that they are content. I can’t imagine they are going to want a more favorable division of the BRI. I can’t imagine their mouths will form those words. The last deal was quite the coup for them.”
Roberts says she is in the early stages of putting together a strategy. “I’m still conducting an autopsy of the last agreement,” Roberts said. She says she hopes high profile players are more involved (“Those are the players [reporters] go to for comments,” Roberts said) and says she finds the nominal raises for the NBA’s “middle class” to be “disturbing.” She declines to discuss too many specifics on what kind of deal the players will be looking for, except to say “a better one.”
“If I come away with a worse deal, they will fire me before I can quit,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to say the players got hosed the last time. That’s disrespectful, and I wasn’t there. But they certainly lost a considerable amount of money. The rationale the owners used the last time was “profitability was an issue.” That is not going to be an issue going forward. If under these new circumstances we are still giving up a billion dollars, I’ll be run out of town.”
In recent weeks, Roberts has been making the rounds. She has been to Charlotte, Minnesota, Boston and Philadelphia. She has held 35-40 minute information sessions with players after practice, introducing herself to them and asking for feedback. “I think they want to look me in the eye and see if I’m full of crap,” Roberts said. And while Roberts has been prepared for skepticism from players disenchanted with the union’s leadership under Billy Hunter, she has been surprised at how receptive the players she has met with have been.“I didn’t expect them to be engaged; what I have found consistently is that they are listening,” Robert said. “They have questions and they are engaged. They want to, frankly, hear us talk about what we plan to do for them. The consistent theme is ‘I want to know what you plan to do.’ At the end of the meetings, I always say see you [at union meetings] at All-Star, and they say they will be there. I think, so far, we are at least being given the benefit of the doubt.”
Part of the message in the meetings is this: Save your money. While Roberts repeatedly emphasized during a 45-minute interview that a work stoppage was avoidable, she believes it would be foolish not to prepare players for a worst case scenario.
“I wanted to make them sure they understood I wasn’t advocating for a strike or a lockout, but I was preparing for it,” Roberts said. “They should be mindful of that as players. Part of preparing for any negotiation is to be prepared for the work stoppage. It is part of your leverage to be able to say with certainty that we are prepared for a long lockout.”
“But of course I think it’s avoidable. Does anyone really expect Adam and I will sing kumbaya every day? We’re grown ups. He has a constituency, and I do. We disagree. But that’s the world. You know what we do agree on? We don’t want a work stoppage. Neither one of us wants to see that happen. We have said it to each other. We have said it out loud. Our teams are all smart, we all have the same goals and we should be able to sit down and avoid it. I’d be surprised, frankly, if we had one, but I’m ready if we do.”