The National Basketball Players Association’s leadership, quite frankly, has been downright miserable for the past decade and a half. Under the stewardship of former NBPA executive director Billy Hunter, the union has given in to maximum salaries depending on age, a luxury tax, a minimum age requirement for entering the NBA draft, restricted free agency, and a massive reduction in the percentage of basketball-related income that heads the players’ way. The players have lost income on 48 combined games over that turn, and Hunter was forced out following the NBA’s last lockout after the players tired of his perpetual incompetency, and various other charges.
The hope, for the players at least, is that new union head Michele Roberts can right the ship. With team valuations soaring and a lucrative new television contract in the league’s future, the players are lining up behind the former trial lawyer in preparation for what promise to be more league-altering negotiations should either the league or the union opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in after the 2016-17 season.
And if there is any gender bias on either side of the table, the first female union chief in North American major sport history will be quick to change some minds. From Andrew Keh’s feature on Roberts in the New York Times:
“I bet you can tell I’m a woman,” she said, “and I suspect the rest of the world can, too.”
She said she was all too aware that if she was selected, she would represent several hundred male athletes in the N.B.A.; she would deal with league officials and agents who were nearly all men; she would negotiate with team owners who were almost all men; and she would stand before reporters who were predominantly men.
She did not flinch. “My past,” she told the room, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
This isn’t posturing. The partner at Washington’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom firm didn’t get to this position by playing even with her male counterparts. It’s no secret that dedicated women have to work far, far harder in order to merely approximate the positions and (hopefully) earnings of men in what were once seen as typically male roles. Though things have slightly gotten better over the past 40 years (again, slightly), Roberts is of a generation of women that have had to work through more obstacles than males in the same position could ever conceive of.
She will have her work cut out for her, which is nothing new to Roberts. The NBPA has long been divided down several lines, with factions inspired by age, player agents and even shoe company endorsements. There were several fractious in-house arguments among these various groups during the 1998 and 2011 lockouts, and though leadership is improving, the retirement of Derek Fisher and eventual retirement of Roger Mason Jr. will take two consistent NBPA voices out of the room.
New’ish NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may come off as a convivial sort, but it’s important to recall that he was the lead attack dog during the contentious 2011 negotiations. Though Silver won’t be as haughty as David Stern at the bargaining table, he and his often careless owners aren’t going to give back huge scads of that basketball-related income just because it’s the players’ turn at winning, and because they have proper representation for once.
If it ever gets to this point — the league and its players could come to an agreement without a lockout, as Stern and Hunter did during the summer of 2005 — the next battle will be a whopper. In just the past 15 months, three NBA teams have sold for more than $3 billion combined, and the league will continue to add to the pile of coin as the new television deal unfolds, on top of continuous repackaging of player jerseys and the like. The NBA’s players are making good money, but relative to them the NBA is making great money, and these players know it.
Enter Roberts, and skeletons be gone.
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