NBA Union Making History
This week you might have been breathless over how the Cowboys and Tony Romo can’t seem to get their story straight about just how healthy he is and how available he will be in August. Or you might have taken the time to watch Yu Darvish take down the Yankees to give the Rangers a rare summer win. But what you missed was, quite possibly, a watershed moment in sports history.
Rarely has the NBA Players Association made positive news. Ever since its formation, with the exception of the Oscar Robertson lawsuit that brought in the era of free agency to the NBA, it has seemingly been one pratfall after another. One executive director (Larry Fleisher) served while still representing individual players. Another boss (Simon Gourdine) actually worked for the NBA, and another (Billy Hunter), was too busy padding his pockets, and those of his family, to worry about the best interest of his constituency (not that the constituency has been a terribly involved lot). Basically the NBPA has been one hot mess. But that may have just changed when the players elected Washington, DC attorney Michele Roberts as their new boss, ending a 17 month search and becoming the first woman to run a major professional sports union.
Roberts’s legal skills are well known as she has worked for two of the most high powered law firms in the nation. What we don’t know, however, is whether she will be the next Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr, who helped build the MLB Players association into not just the strongest sports union, but the strongest union in the nation, period. Or will she be Hunter, or Bob Goodenow, who led NBA and NHL players over the proverbial union cliff.
She starts a bit behind because she was not elected by the rank and file, but rather by the NBPA executive committee and the 30 player representatives. She is going to have to show all the players what her plan is, and to somehow keep the lines of communication open, since that was a huge part of player discontent with Hunter. She is also going to have to wrangle with the agents, who have had a seemingly disproportionate amount of sway, and get them on board with her agenda and then move ahead as one unit.
And then she is going to have to work with the new commissioner Adam Silver, whose efforts to remove Donald Sterling as Clippers owner were met with widespread acclaim by the players, and whose efforts to think outside the box have been applauded by fans. Not being David Stern has probably helped Silver’s popularity quite a bit in his first year as commissioner, but make no mistake, it was Silver as the lead negotiator in the last agreement between owners and players who scored the clean knockout that Roberts, and her union, are still staggering from.
Roberts has time, but it’s not all that much time, to bring a lot of warring factions together. Frankly, she is the one person standing in the way between you the fan and yet another lockout (the CBA can be reopened after the 2016-17 season). In the first three years of the new CBA, the value of NBA franchises (highlighted by the pending $2 billion sale of the Clippers) has gone through the roof. There’s a new national TV contract on the way that is likely to be worth in the neighborhood of $2 billion. Local TV rights are soaring as well. The players want back some of that $300 billion they surrendered in the last deal.
You have to be tough to get to the top of firms like Akin, Gump and Skadden, Arps – so Michele Roberts has shown she’s that and more, and can fight in a man’s word. Yet in trying to organize her new house while taking on the NBA establishment, Michele Roberts might be taking on her toughest fight yet. It’s history we’re about to watch.