Holy Shit, the NBPA Has An Actual Leader

The 2011 NBA lockout was many things, but one of the most prominent was an internal leadership squabble within the National Basketball Players Association. The NBPA was, and had been for years, a clusterfuck. President Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter took turns undermining each other and implementing half-baked strategies that only led the union to the rendering plant. Four years later the acrimony lingers, with Billy Hunter’s lawsuit for breach of contract against the union ongoing, and genuinely puzzling conspiratorial questions about why NBA owners continued to pay Derek Fisher to “play” “basketball” through 2014.

After a loooooong search process typified by fits-and-starts, this summer the NBPA finally hired trial lawyer Michele Roberts as its executive director. Trial lawyers are known for their combativeness—hell, it’s their essential job function—and Roberts is no exception, reportedly telling the players, “my past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”

Damn. DAMN!

There will probably be another labor dispute in 2017, when either side can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. If so, Michele Roberts seems like the perfect person to lead the players union. In an interview with ESPN the Magazine that dropped today, Roberts showed she isn’t playing around.

She went in on the fundamental uselessness of owners:

“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.”

The salary cap:

“I can’t understand why the [players' association] would be interested in suppressing salaries at the top if we know that as salaries at the top have grown, so have salaries at the bottom,” she said. “If that’s the case, I contend that there is no reason in the world why the union should embrace salary caps or any effort to place a barrier on the amount of money that marquee players can make.”

The age limit:

“It doesn’t make sense to me that you’re suddenly eligible and ready to make money when you’re 20, but not when you’re 19, not when you’re 18,” she said. “I suspect that the association will agree that this is not going to be one that they will agree to easily. There is no other profession that says that you’re old enough to die but not old enough to work.”

And a whole lot more that you should really go read.

As someone who predominantly supports unions—and sure as hell doesn’t support billionaires crying fake poor to make more money—the only thing I can say is: finally. Finally the NBPA has a leader who gets it. Derek Fisher and Billly Hunter were so nearsighted they kept running into trees—unable to even comprehend that there was a forest—while sabotaging each others efforts and arguing about whether players should get 52% or 53% of Basketball Related Income.

Ethan is 100 percent right here: most of the NBA’s foundation is worth questioning, and that’s what Roberts should be, and seems to be, doing. There are various assumptions, policies, and strategies baked into the NBA that don’t make much sense, and more often than not these things limit player freedom or cost players money.

The NBA’s asinine small-market strategy costs it millions or billions of dollars, something that harms both players and owners, except that owners get to sell their teams and cash out before being hurt. The NBA’s dumb broadcast strategy promotes the careers of players on the 20% of teams the NBA has decided matters at the expense of the other 80%. The NBA’s age limit—and the puzzling support the league gives to the NCAA—is a joke that does absolutely nothing to help players. And we haven’t even gotten to the juicy aspects of the CBA that Roberts should—and certainly will—question.

If I may venture into the deep-end, the NBPA had the Obama problem. In a New Republic piece on Obama and Valerie Jarrett’s relationship, Noam Schreiber astutely characterizes the Obama administration’s missteps in negotiating with conservatives:

Second, the White House completely misunderstood the psychology of House Republicans, who took Obama’s concessions as a vindication of their anti-spending mania and repeatedly balked at tax increases. Inexplicably, the White House continued to pursue a deal for years after the GOP showed its bad faith, efforts that Jarrett supported as well.

It wasn’t the only time she got burned by assuming good intentions. In 2010, Jarrett met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group representing the largest corporations in the country. She was proud that she had dialed back the president’s occasional verbal salvos and hoped it might win him some support in exchange. “She was like, ‘Last time I was here, you guys told us the key thing was the rhetoric,’” recalls a former colleague. “ ‘Look at the president’s speeches. They’re very different in tone based on your input.’”

The group’s chairman took this all in, then offered the all-too-predictable response. “Yes, yes, we noted that,” he said, according to the colleague. “We have five other objections.”

The parallels to how the players negotiated during the lockout are striking. At different times Hunter and Fisher attempted to strike a Grand Bargain by offering a concession as a good faith effort. Instead, the owners (correctly) saw those concessions as evidence of weakness, took them, and then demanded more. Negotiating this way won’t work in 2017, just like it didn’t work in 2011, especially since the players are in such a demonstrably weaker position. If the union tries it that way again, it’ll just be another trip back to the rendering plant.

As of now, this is all just rhetoric. Michele Roberts hasn’t had to, you know, actually do anything as executive director except for give some interviews. But that will change soon. The huge new media deal the NBA signed is going to make the salary cap skyrocket before the 2016 season, a situation the league would like to avoid by implementing a “smoothing” mechanism ASAP. To do so, however, they’ll need the players to go along with it. What does Michele Roberts think?

“You can call it a ‘spike,’ but it’s also just an accurate reflection of what the revenue is,” she said. “At first glance, [cap smoothing] is not that attractive, I won’t lie. But we’re studying it to figure out if there really is some advantage for players.”

In three sentences Roberts has perfectly summed up what should be her mantra going forward. She isn’t hiding behind “the good of the game” or some aphorism, but baldly describing her duty: to study stuff and try and find an advantage for the players. It may not seem like much, but it represents the most competent leadership the players have had for decades.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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5 Responses to Holy Shit, the NBPA Has An Actual Leader

  1. First, you’re right to point out that this is all rhetoric. Nobody should read Roberts and say to themselves, “Yeah! That makes sense!” It doesn’t, but it’s not her job to make impartial statements. She’s an advocate doing her job.

    Second, she’s right to play the Expendable Owners Card. The players need an alternative to the NBA as an employer to have more leverage.

    My only question, now, is where is the realistic alternative to the NBA? I think that — particularly if/when the age minimum increases — more players will go to China. But I don’t think we’re at a point yet when China (or Spain or Greece or…) can realistically compete with the NBA status quo for the world’s best players. And it should go without saying that 30 random billionaires can’t and won’t launch a fresh new league in America that can compete financially with the current NBA. There’s history, there’s infrastructure, there’s a government, there’s a brand. It’s a monopoly, and that has its own issues, but that’s for a different conversation. Therefore, owners can call bullshit on this pretty easily until an alternative exists.

    Third, this will all come down to a game of chicken over the revenue split. Who can wait it out longer? The forest here is how great the NBA is for players and owners alike. The trees is in the details. They’ll fight harder for a higher percentage than last time, and maybe they’ll have another work stoppage. But it’s easy to get carried away with grand, existential comments about the need for the NBA when — like you said — this is all just rhetoric.

    • Why alternative to NBA? says:

      I’m not sure you understood Robert’s argument. She doesn’t argue that players could play in an alternative NBA (even if that could be true, as happened in ABA era). What she says, is that Clippers can change Sterling for Ballmer, and nobody winks (it’s a possitive change actually). You can’t change Blake Griffin and Chris Paul for two guys outside of the NBA.

      There are only 450 NBA players. Only 150 of those are starter caliber players, and the number is actually lower, since that’s counting Sixers starting players as NBA caliber players. There are 492 billonaires in USA, and that’s not counting foreing investors like Prokhorov.

      NBA players are, by far and large, much more scarce and thus much more valuable for the game than NBA owners. Most owners bring just a single thing to the NBA: loads of money. But there is a LOT of rich people who WANT to be an NBA owner. There aren’t a lot of 6’10″ guys with Durant coordination.

      • The existence of other billionaires in the world has no relevance unless those other billionaires can and will provide an NBA alternative. You can’t separate the 30 NBA owners from the league that they operate. The league provides a *ton* of market value to the awesome abilities of its players.

        The barriers for a rival league to enter seem impossibly high as long as the NBA owners will pay what they’re currently paying to labor. It doesn’t mean the players are wrong to fight as hard as they can; and the new director sounds up for a good fight. But this idea that owners are irrelevant misses the mark by a long shot. Nobody said they were relevant as figures, but the league they own is pretty important. Again, it’s just rhetoric. She knows what she’s doing.

  2. Andrew Sutton says:

    I have mention that the players could get companies like Nike and Google to backed them at the boxscore geeks. Nike basically has a high school pro league in the EYBL( Elite Youth Basketball League) and ESPN covered it. So there is money out there. The age limit is a joke. Guys like Durant and Davis could have played right out of high school. James wanted to leave after his junior year. Rubio played as a pro at 14. If someone wants to pay a 14 year old, why not?
    End the draft too…FREE THE BROW

  3. djbtak says:

    Thanks Kevin, I heard Roberts on Zach Lowe’s podcast and was similarly impressed by a) real talk, b) obvious experience in negotiation and the role of ambit claims and c) her commitment to process, pointing out that it’s not her job to have ideas about what the smoothing proposals should be, but to verify that the claims being made for those proposals “for the good of the league” will not unfairly disadvantage the players.

    From outside the US, so much of the NBA discourse mobilised by the owners and their apologists seems obviously connected to paternalist plantation lineages of control over black labor being “for the good of all” (not that it only applies to black labor, but it primarily does). I don’t doubt that as a black woman Roberts’ “uppity” remarks will attract GamerGate-style threats from the many unreconstructed white supremacists out there. While there is little to be done about those dudes, it’s great to see writers like yourself taking the time to acknowledge her professional competence, which in a way is a stand for everyone who values professional competence over homilies in economic decision-making.

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