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NBA union boss wants to prove players were right to ‘give a girl a chance’

Michele Roberts, the first woman ever to run a professional sports union in North America, is on top of what is still very much a man's world. She'll face negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with NBA team owners in 2017. As part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff interviews Roberts about her journey and the coming challenge.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: As part of our ongoing partnership with “The Atlantic” magazine, my profile of Michele Roberts, the first woman to serve as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.

    An article featuring Roberts is in the magazine’s May issue that is currently on the stands.

    Last year this time, Michele Roberts was one of the country’s leading trial lawyers. An unknown quantity in the world of basketball, she was still chosen out of 300 candidates, receiving almost 90 percent of the vote from player representatives to lead their union.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS, Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association:

    When I initially got the job, there were literally mornings I would get up, and I would remember that I was no longer in D.C., I was no longer practicing law, and then I would just burst into laughter, thinking, this is so cool.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    My two older brothers were basketball fans. We had one television growing up. And we saw a lot of Knick games.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    And so, just by osmosis, I started watching the game and loving the game. And that love of basketball never changed.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The first woman ever to run a professional sports union in North America, Michele Roberts, is undeniably on top of what is still very much a man’s world.

    When I caught up with her at a Knicks game last month, it was clear that even big-time players like the legendary Walt Frazier understand her value.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    I spent about 12 seconds thinking I won’t get this job because I am woman. I got over that a long time ago.

    Now, having said that, I had to at least assure them that I wasn’t some wuss.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Shattering glass ceilings is Roberts’ specialty. One of the country’s top litigators, she honed her skills as a public defender, where losing a case could mean a life sentence for her clients.

  • LOU AMUNDSON, New York Knicks:

    The fact that she has the background in litigation was big for us. You know, and just she’s — she’s a tough one. She’s not going to take any — any B.S. from anybody.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Players like the New York Knicks’ Lou Amundson and Jason Smith, both very active in the union, were impressed from the beginning.

  • JASON SMITH, New York Knicks:

    We had a lot of different people in mind. And she presented to us multiple times, so I think we kind of had a mind-set as a union that we wanted to have her to lead us into kind of battle.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now nine months into the job, she took me from the Harlem headquarters, where she presides over the union, back to the South Bronx, where it all began.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    It’s been a long journey.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Melrose Houses, a low-income apartment project, was home for Michele, her four siblings and her mother, Elsie.

    This was your building?

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    That’s where I lived, on the 10th floor.

    She was a no-nonsense, no excuses, no pity, I don’t want to hear it kind of woman. Her view was, I will feed you. I will clothe you. I will make sure that you have a shelter, and in exchange for that, there’s one thing you’re going to do. You’re going to come in here with the best grades you can.

    We would just come to watch. In the summer, they’d have tournaments. Basketball was huge.

    She didn’t have a high school diploma. She was on welfare. She had five kids, and her husband split. I don’t know where she found the nerve and the commitment to even encourage us, but she did.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For high school, Elsie Roberts strategically guided her daughter towards a scholarship at the prestigious Masters School, an all-girls boarding school only 50 miles from home, but worlds away.

    Michele went on to Wesleyan University and then to U.C. Berkeley’s top-notch Boalt Hall Law School, fulfilling her dream to become a lawyer, a career inspired by one of her mother’s peculiar hobbies.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    Don’t ask me what in the world motivated her to go watch trials, but she did. And when I accompanied her, I, like her, thought this was really a lot of fun. And it was fascinating.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    She would sit in on trials at the Bronx Supreme Court, sometimes with Michele in tow.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    Even though I could understand probably 4 percent of what I was watching, I could tell that this lawyer wasn’t doing such a great job. And my mother told me, explained to me, well, you know, that’s a court-appointed lawyer. Poor people who end up in the criminal justice system, if they’re not able to afford counsel, they get whoever the court appoints.

    And, at that moment, I knew I was going to be a public defender.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Elsie Roberts didn’t live to see her daughter’s illustrious legal career or her historic entry into the world of professional sports.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    You are obviously not the only rookies in the room.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just how unlikely a match was it, do you think?

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    It’s not as unlikely as people think. Being the executive director of a players union means understanding what the members want, what the members need, and helping them get there.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That promised land for players is a new collective bargaining agreement with owners, up for negotiation in 2017.

    The last agreement, in 2011, was reached only after a lockout.

  • DAVID STERN, Former NBA Commissioner:

    In light of the breakdown of talks, there will not be a full NBA season any under circumstances.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It cost the players much of their season and depleted their total revenue by as much as $3 billion.

  • ANDREW ZIMBALIST, Smith College:

    It was very favorable to the owners.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Andrew Zimbalist, a top sports economist at Smith College, points out that players were earning more a decade ago.

  • ANDREW ZIMBALIST:

    The players’ share of total revenue in the NBA, or what they call basketball-related income, has fallen. It was up around 60 percent. It fell to 57 percent. Now it’s roughly at 50 percent. So it’s gone steadily down. It’s gone down as revenues have gone up.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In 2016, the largest television deal ever made by the NBA will go into effect, to the tune of $24 billion over nine years.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    The amount of revenue that’s coming in is three times what it was under the last TV deal. And these teams are not going to, I think, with a straight face try to suggest that they are broke.

    And so that’s a different environment. Gate receipts are up, and so the game is more popular than ever.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But Roberts is still battling uphill. There’s not much public sympathy for millionaire players squaring off against billionaire owners.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    Everyone knows what the players’ compensation is, but they don’t know what the profit is of these teams. The focus is not going to be on how much Kobe Bryant makes, but we’re going to be focusing on how much the Lakers make.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nonetheless, the average player salary is $5 million, and almost 30 percent of players are making more than that.

  • JAMES JONES, Cleveland Cavaliers:

    We never, ever run from the fact that we are well-compensated. That’s why we have so much respect for our fans, because, without them, none of this is possible.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    James Jones, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the secretary-treasurer of the National Basketball Players Association.

  • JAMES JONES:

    But make no mistake about it. We’re still labor.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One of Roberts’ biggest coups thus far is getting superstar LeBron James to take on the role of union vice president. Roberts’ hope is to strengthen the union by getting more players involved.

  • ANDREW ZIMBALIST:

    It’s hard to have a proletarian or working-class solidarity attitude if you’re making $5.5 million. Over time, these players have gotten paid more and more. They have become more and more reluctant to say, let’s have solidarity, guys, and let’s stay out and let’s fight the bad guy owners.

  • JAMES JONES:

    A lockout is something we want to avoid. Either way, we know that she will be prepared, that she will have the best game plan in place for us to hold us together.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    With negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement still two years away, Roberts has time to build her relationship with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was also appointed just last year.

  • ADAM SILVER, NBA Commissioner:

    I look forward to serving you.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    Right now, I have an opponent who would like to be a partner. And to the extent we can maintain civility and understand that we have respective clients that we have to represent, I think — I think the future is optimistic for CBA negotiations. I don’t want the community to believe that we’re going to have another lockout or strike.

  • ANDREW ZIMBALIST:

    The outcome is going to be determined by leverage. And the leverage will only come if Michele Roberts ultimately is able to fashion that unity.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Whatever’s in store, Michele Roberts says she is more than ready.

  • MICHELE ROBERTS:

    I plan to be the best executive director in the history of this union. But I’m proud of it. And I’m proud of the players for — for being — quote, unquote — “bold enough” to give a girl a chance.

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