New NBA Players Union Executive Blazes New Trail

Attorney Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, will be the first woman in any major pro sport to take on such a role. Roberts takes the position after a disruptive period for the organization.

The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has a new executive director, and she’s looking to score some points for an organization in need of strong leadership.

Michele Roberts—a trial lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP—was elected to lead the NBPA last week, becoming the first woman to lead a players union in any major sports league in North America.

To hear it from her, her hiring represents the desire of players to have a strong voice out front—one that will stand up for the players, who she says “understood that this was their union, and they intended to run it.”

“They were looking for, not a man, not a woman, they were looking for a personality,” Roberts told the Associated Press. “I think I’m that personality, and I intend to be what I have been in my entire practice: singularly devoted to this union. And that’s what they were looking for.”

She says she threw her name into the ring after hearing an NBA player speak about the issue on television last year, and she was inspired as a longtime fan of the sport.

An Organization Facing Strife

Roberts takes the role more than a year after her predecessor, Billy Hunter, left the organization amid turmoil.

An investigation of Hunter, a former NFL wide receiver who led the NBPA for 17 years (including through the lockout during much of 2011), raised questions about nepotism and conflicts of interest on his part, as well as his spending of organization funds and the status of his contract. Soon after the results of the investigation were revealed, player representatives voted unanimously to dismiss him.

Hunter later sued the players union and then-President Derek Fisher, who ordered the audit. Much of the lawsuit was blocked from going forward this year, though a portion of the suit involving breach of contract claims was allowed to continue.

Even without the lawsuit, the situation has been costly for the union, which spent $5.42 million on the internal audit that led to Hunter’s departure.

More recently, the union found itself dealing with the high-profile controversy involving recently ousted Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling—without an executive director. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, NBPA’s chairman and a former NBA player, took on an additional leadership role during that crisis.

A Lengthy Process

Reflecting the recent strife, Roberts’ hiring was a slow-moving process. After she was pitched to members as a finalist in February, the search was reopened at the urging of some players and agents.

Ultimately, she beat two other candidates—Information Technology Industry Council President and CEO Dean Garfield and Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery—in last week’s vote. NBPA President Chris Paul (a Los Angeles Clippers star) noted that the vote showed a high level of player engagement.

“We’ve never had this [many] players here for a meeting, to give their input and feedback,” he said in a statement to NBA.com.

Roberts welcomed the extra scrutiny. “Obviously, I would’ve preferred that it happen sooner rather than later, but I completely understood when there were questions raised about the process,” Roberts told the AP. “Frankly, I would not have wanted them to ignore those questions and not affirmatively address those concerns.”

As for being the first woman to lead a major professional sports union, Roberts sounded unfazed in an interview with The Boston Globe.

“Being a trial lawyer, being a litigator, has been historically dominated by men—and quite frankly by white men—so I’ve had to compete in an environment where I was probably the only woman in the room,” she said. “At some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Are you going to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that you’re the only one, or are you going to go out there and just compete and be the best lawyer in the room?’ Don’t worry about that you’re the only girl in the room. That’s how I’ve lived my professional life.”

(handout photo/Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom LLP)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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