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.”
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.
Much of the NBA’s foundation is worth questioning. Why should teams get major advantages re-signing players? Why an arbitrary age limit?
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) November 13, 2014
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.