There was one name that I truly hoped would be part of the 2014 NBA soap opera, and that name is Bill Fletcher. No, Fletcher doesn’t play basketball and I can’t attest to his vertical. But he did throw his hat in the ring to become the next Executive Director of the NBA Players Association. As a founder of Black Workers for Justice, the chair of the Retail Justice Alliance and the former director of TransAfrica, Fletcher is a rabble rouser of the first order and I would have loved to have seen how he upset the staid—and highly unequal—labor relations that plague the NBA. Alas, Fletcher was not chosen. He did not even get to present his case to the players, which is a true loss in an NBA atmosphere that has seen corporate profits skyrocket, franchises sell at record levels, and salaries get hard-capped.
And yet, as sad as I am to see Fletcher pushed to the side, it is difficult to not be profoundly intrigued by who the reps did select: Michele Roberts. Yes the players made history by electing the first ever woman to head a men’s sports union. In these most machismo of environs, Ms. Roberts knocked their socks off.
“I bet you can tell I’m a woman,” she reportedly said to the player reps, “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 NBA; 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.”
Damn. As much as that wowed the player representatives in the room, my own sources say that it was her view to proactively build a leadership team to regain control of what has been an aimless operation that truly won her majority support.
As Roberts said after the election, “I am a bad woman, but I’m not that bad. We are going to have a team, a very strong team, what I call a team of gladiators, that’s going to help these men and women, again, go in the direction they choose to go. It’s a new day. It’s not a one-person, Superman, ‘I’ve got this.’ It’s going to be a team.”
High on her list will be opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement in two years. The owners have extracted a stunning amount of wealth from the players over the last decade. There is a line of plutocrats looking to buy NBA teams, partly because the position of labor and their earning potential is so dramatically restricted. Ms. Roberts will be judged above all else, on her ability to lead that “team of gladiators.”
The only concern that lingers is that unlike Bill Fletcher, there is scant record of labor unionism or movement building in Ms. Roberts’ past. In other words, she kicks all kinds of ass across the negotiating table, but there is no evidence that she knows her way around a picket line. Then again, the NBA rank and file are not looking to go on strike. They are looking for a fair shake from Adam Silver. The best sign is that Michele Roberts clearly sees that her greatest asset from a public relations as well as organizing standpoint is having the players as a part of the process.
“They’ve got their union back, and I’m going to make sure that they are empowered to take their union exactly where they want their union to go,” Roberts said.
Sounds like a welcome change to me.