The Woman Who Will Change Sports

"MY FRIENDS HAVE no imagination," Michele Roberts says, taking stock of her corner office in Harlem one afternoon in mid-November. Since being elected executive director of the NBA Players' Association in July, Roberts has been gifted more than a dozen framed newspaper clippings about her status as the first female chief of a major professional sports union in North America. There has never been anyone like her.

But to grill Roberts for an hour, in person, is to discover that the woman hailed as one of the sharpest trial lawyers in America is most unique for reasons far beyond her gender. She is singular in her willingness to question the culturally calcified rules that govern player-owner relations in an industry in which she's never previously worked.

Now, with the NBA's nine-year, $24 billion TV deal set to start in 2016 -- and the expectation that the players will opt out of the league's collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season -- the mind of Michele Roberts is taking center stage.

Pablo Torre: The Collective Bargaining Agreement is a really long document. Have you read all of it? And, if so, what are your big takeaways?
Michele Roberts: Initially it made my head explode. And I think it's still the kind of thing that you need to keep reading and reading and reading for it to make some sense. But the current CBA makes better sense now that I've read the preceding two. Because it appears to be an interesting narrative of what the league has been interested in having happen, in terms of its relationship with players, over a period of years. It wants, clearly, to do some things a) to protect itself, from itself; and b) to limit­ -- and it's almost the same thing -- to limit player salaries because it's unable to somehow get the owners to behave in a way that makes sense from an owner's perspective. In terms of some of the salary structures, it's a way to rein in the owners because they can't otherwise rein in themselves.

PT: So what are your thoughts on the notion of a salary cap?
MR: My world was such that you made as much as you could, frankly. No partner I ever knew went into a comp meeting and said, I know I'm worth X, but yeah, that's fine, I'll take X minus 10. I don't know of any space other than the world of sports where there's this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone's able to make, just because. It's incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.

PT: Then there's the max contract: that the best player cannot be paid what he's worth, that there's a ceiling on what he can make.
MR: I happen to believe that the owners are really smart people. So when they make decisions on what they want to pay a player -- I have no reason to second-guess them. I don't buy the notion that they will spend all their money on one player and have nothing left to fund the rest of their bench.

PT: And the rookie wage scale -- is that similarly problematic for you?
MR: It is. And we all know that the shelf life of a player is limited, so the notion that you would somehow suggest that for the first four, five years of your life as a player, you're not going to be paid what you're otherwise worth? Frankly, it does say that by the end of your career, you're going to make substantially less money than you would otherwise make but for these artificial barriers.

PT: Adam Silver has said that one of his top priorities is to boost the age limit to 20. It's 19 now. Should there be an age limit at all?
MR: I started working when I was 13 in New York. I've never not worked. I understand that you want to work to support yourself and your family. It offends me that there should be some artificial limits set on someone's ability to make a living. 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. In my opinion -- and we have yet to get official word from the players association -- but 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, again, that says that you're old enough to die but not old enough to work.

PT: So why is sports able to get away with this?
MR: No one wants to say it out loud, but it's a monopoly. That's why, at the end of the day, when we can't agree, we go running to court and we bring anti-trust litigation. It's a monopoly. And were there alternatives, they wouldn't get away with it. But each sport has a league that can shape the contours of the game, and you've got these restrictions. You're talking about artificially deflating when marquee players would be able to start making their money.

PT: Is there a conflict between your principles and what might be good for the majority of your constituency? Would getting rid of the max contract, for instance, be bad for the majority by purely economic standards?
MR: As player salaries have increased for our so-called marquee players, have player salaries increased overall for the rest of the players? The answer that has been consistently given to me is "Yes." And if that's the case, I can't understand why in the world the union should embrace salary caps or any effort to place a barrier on the amount of money that marquee players can make. Every player I've talked to says, "They should make as much money as they can, because a) they deserve it and b) it doesn't hurt me. When those salaries go up, our salaries go up. I will tell you that as the executive director, if there was any evidence that any activity would harm the majority of the players, I would represent that this is something that's going to be harmful to our union. I do have principles, but at the end of the day, they would have to take the backseat to any activity that would harm the players. As it turns out, having max salaries is both offensive to me in terms of my personal principles and is harmful to the union. So that's an easy call. I'm not conflicted.

PT: So you've been on this tour, going to talk to the players. What are players most interested in?
MR: Right now, they're most interested in knowing me, which makes absolute sense. We talk about a number of things: one of them is TV revenue and this TV contract that's coming. But it's principally about them figuring out if they can trust me, and whether they think I'm more of the same.

PT: The perception, to be blunt, is that players got fleeced in the last round of CBA negotiations. I'm not the first person to suggest that to you.
MR: Not at all.

PT: But there's this huge new, $2.7 billion-ish TV deal that begins after the 2015-16 season that triples the value of the current TV deal. What impact does that have on the negotiations?
MR: We'll see, but because there's this huge ramp-up in revenue, the salary cap will obviously grow. The proposal that the league has made thus far is that we agree to, essentially, artificially deflate the salary cap. We're going to have economists run some models to figure out exactly what it could mean over the long run for our players. But it essentially does involve our agreeing that the salary cap would not be allowed to grow to actually accurate reflect revenue.

PT: On the one hand, the Clippers are sold for 2 billion dollars. But there's this report that one in three franchises are losing money. What do you think when you hear that statistic?
MR: I initially just started laughing. I just don't get it. And maybe I'm overestimating the intelligence of the owners. I don't think so, but maybe I am. Because on top of the TV deal, I'm also reading that the gate receipts are going up the wazoo. I know that as a result of the last CBA, at least $1.3, $1.4 billion in revenue that would have otherwise been on the players' side is now on the owners' side. I see these teams, the valuations of these teams going through the roof. It's not just the Clippers. I heard [Wizards owner] Ted Leonsis say, at the TV deal press conference, "This is a great day to be an owner of an NBA team!" So how much more do you need to make money?

PT: Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov recently said that losing $144 million last season "is not a big deal."
MR: Is not a big deal! And his team was the biggest loser. So if he's okay with it? I'm okay with it. I think he would call it an investment. So I'm sure that's what they're telling Adam, but I don't buy it. It's really hard to. I don't think we'll be hearing much more of that.

PT: There's a public-perception argument out there that 50-50 sounds fair. Players and owners sharing equally. What do you make of that notion?
MR: Why don't we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let's call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. If not for the players. They create the game. Thirty more owners can come in and nothing will change. These guys go? The game will change. So let's stop pretending. We are responsible for the success of the game. That's my answer.

PT: Does it strike you as strange that the suggestion that the players might request over 50 percent of basketball-related income, maybe materially more than 50 percent, sounds radical in this landscape?
MR: Let's put it this way: I have never heard anyone complain about the amount of money George Clooney makes. No one says a peep about the fact that this guy makes probably more than the highest-paid player in the NBA. It's mind-boggling to me that people think that the players make too much given that this is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and they do not enjoy most of the money that's being made. It is insane to suggest that these men make more money than they deserve. It is insane.

PT: Then why is the public fundamentally distinguishing between an "athlete" and a "businessman"?
MR: I'll give the league credit -- they have done a great job controlling the narrative. They've done a great job promoting the notion that the owners make all the investments and take all of the risks and barely make a dollar. And these young men, all they're doing is playing basketball, they're making millions and millions of dollars playing a game. One of the things that I have on my list, that I will absolutely not go to my grave until I correct, is responding to that narrative, and no longer ceding the public dialogue to the league in that regard. Because it doesn't accurately reflect who these guys are or what these guys do.

PT: Adam Silver has said that he credits the CBA for helping make the NBA a better, more compelling product: in terms of competitiveness, in terms of the distribution of stars, all these storylines. How much credit is due to the CBA in that way?
MR: I read that. I'm going to ask Adam to help me understand how he gets to that. Adam knows the CBA better than I do today. Underscore: today. So I'm not going to say he's completely out of his mind. But I don't see that. My reading of the CBA does not support that proclamation. He needs to fill in the blanks for how he gets from Point A to Point B.

PT: You've described the task in front of the union as making a climb from the bottom of the mountain to the top. What does the top of the mountain look like?
MR: It's when we walk into CBA negotiations, and everyone understands that we address these issues as equals. I believe strongly, based on what I've seen and heard and read, that that has not been the case for at least the last 10 years. That we'd come in at a decided disadvantage, and it's reflected, certainly, in the last round of CBA negotiations.

PT: Do you see a day when there's an NBA team in Europe? Have you had conversations where players seem in favor of that?
MR: Yes and yes. I think the league has an interest in seeing the game grow, and I think the players do. Our players routinely, if things aren't going well, or for whatever reason, end up playing in Europe and then come back here. Our women -- it's remarkable, they spend more time playing overseas than they spend playing at home. And sadly, some of the 18-year-olds who aren't able to make money here are playing overseas. There's more work, more opportunities to play basketball.

PT: How often you talk to Adam directly? Is it once a month, once a week?
MR: We don't have a scheduled call, but it's probably an average of once every 10 days. There are times when we might speak more frequently than that. It's pretty regular.

PT: Another topic: LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki have said that 82 games, to them, is too many games. Would you like to see a shorter NBA season?
MR: It's a lot of games. It's funny: when I was a season-ticket-holder for the Wizards -- I was there when they were the Bullets, man -- even the 41 games that came with my package, I couldn't see 'em all. It was hard. And I remember thinking, These guys still have to play 'em all. Every time a player gets hurt, I think, ''My God, they really are pushing their bodies." And back-to-backs, those are the ones that I really find disturbing. So the answer, of course, is that everybody wants a shorter season. The tension is, "Will that mean less money?" And that's something that we need to talk about and think about.

PT: Invasive testing for things like HGH, performance-enchancing drugs: Do you think that testing for HGH is friendly to players -- because it protects the clean athletes -- or do you think it's anti-players because it's this unnecessary invasion?
MR: We're testing now for any number of drugs with urine, and frankly, if we can do this with urine, I don't know if it'd be as controversial. Much of what we're really talking about now is the method and the frequency. I don't hear players telling me that they're opposed to the concept. It's simply the method.

PT: The stigma around drawing blood.
MR: It's real, for many people. And the notion that it's going to happen three times a year, in addition to the blood test they already have to take, is worrisome to say the least. But my players aren't pushing back on the concept. Frankly, I don't think that it's a real problem in our game, as compared to some other games. But we need to do it in a way that doesn't offend the players and doesn't interfere with their ability to perform. For example: I don't know if I want to see our players being given blood tests on the day of a game, or before a game. I can see it being not merely a distraction, but it may negatively impede their performance. Those are conversations we're going to have in the near future.

PT: There's this movement, too, about wearable technology in games: these accelerometers, for instance, that can measure fatigue and give us all of this data. Do you have an opinion on wearable technology in games?
MR: Assuming that the science is valid I worry about what exact data we're talking about. If we're talking about actual performance in a given game, part of me says, "Well, that'd be helpful to know that." But when we start getting into the area of predictions, that's when I get really worried. If you're taking that data and suggesting that based on this guy's performance over a period of a week, or a month, or a season, you predict A, B and C with respect to that player's effectiveness down the road, then I get really really troubled. I don't see that that's necessarily where every fan of the data is going, but I see it as a potential slippery slope.

PT: So let me ask you just point-blank, then: What's the union's stance on biometric testing and blood testing and the general monitoring of players' lives outside of the workplace?
MR: We are just now beginning those discussions. It's an agenda item that I intend to make sure that we address in our first official board meeting. To be candid, there has not been a lot of discussion about it.

PT: I remember talking to one lawyer, Alan Milstein, who's a lawyer who's represented NBA players and is a bioethics specialist, and his position was, "There is this inherent conflict of interest when you put medical, health-care data in the hands of your employer." Is there a concern just on that general concept?
MR: It's funny. Those are the things that we would never expect to be allowed in the workplace, right? Now, the argument is, "We're talking about the physical attributes of the players, and that's obviously important, because this is a sport, and that's the difference between why we don't have this going on at IBM but we should have this here." And my answer is: Fiddlesticks. The bottom line is, there are notions of privacy that shouldn't be waived or waive-able simply because you play in the NBA.

PT: What do you do to make sure that players understand what's happening, and you understand what's happening?
MR: The first thing I want to do is find out what the teams are doing. I've read a couple of articles that suggest that some teams are doing nothing, and some teams are doing a little bit of something, and then I read something that made my hair curl: One player said they're taking my blood, but I don't know what they're testing. When I read that, I was astonished. If that same fan, if he walked into his place of employment and his employer said ...

PT: We'd like to know how you're sleeping every night and what your blood says.
MR: They'd be calling me in my old life! To sue the hell of out them! We need to make sure that people know what's going on here.

PT: Shifting gears: In the realm of mental health, I'm curious whether the union has plans to work with the league to establish a comprehensive mental health program and a system where players can seek help anonymously?
MR: Mental health issues, obviously, are issues that we need to pay attention to. I want them to be addressed, though, in a way that there is no fear that it will have an impact on jobs. The union, the teams, the league, we need to have some system that's in place that allows them to seek help without worry that the mere fact that they've sought help can be a basis to decide, maybe this guy isn't someone we want to have. And that's doable. Hotlines, systems in place, that don't allow for any information to be received by the union, by the league, by the teams. That's something I feel very strongly about, and we're going to be working on that.

PT: So much has been said about the history of being the first female union chief in North American pro sports. Are you tired of talking about that yet?
MR: Not yet. I'm not tired. I'll say what I've always said -- I've never not been cognizant of the fact that I'm a woman. Or black. Those are things you can't wake up in the morning and really ignore. But I've always never allowed either of those things -- being a woman or African-American -- to determine my future. I don't walk into rooms saying, "Oh my God, I'm the only one here who's a woman, I'm the only one here who's a person of color." I don't have time for that. I know that there are women and African-Americans who have that at the top of their brains, and it works for them -- but it doesn't work for me. It works for me to try to be perfect.