History-making figures are not always heralds of the past. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to watch them in action. Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), is one such figure.
Roberts is the first ever woman to lead a major professional sports union in North America. First elected in 2014, she was re-elected in 2018. Prior to her union role, she practised law as a public defender and then as a private litigator. She was once described as “the finest pure trial lawyer in Washington.”
She has certainly brought those advocacy skills to the NBPA. Advocating for NBA players, most of whom make millions of dollars, may seem like a far cry from the classic role of labour leaders fighting for the working class. However, Roberts’ leadership has helped shift some of the balance of power away from the billionaire NBA owners to the players whose labour generates their revenue. This is especially important in a league where over 74% of the players are Black but only 1 majority team owner is Black (and he happens to be Michael Jordan).
Roberts inherited a collective agreement that was bargained in the midst of an 8-month long lockout in 2011 and in which the players were forced to concede a number of their demands. The current collective agreement, bargained with Roberts at the helm, significantly increased minimum salaries, elevated the cap for maximum salaries, and limited the number of back-to-back games. Among other gains, it also created a health insurance fund for retired players, an important resource since the average NBA career lasts less than 5 years.
Most recently, Roberts displayed her leadership and support for Black players in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota and the ensuing protest movements. She backed the players’ decision to strike in August 2020, which was first sparked by the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play in protest of the killing of Jacob Blake. Although the strike was short-lived, it created momentum for further political and social action through the NBPA. The union and league have agreed on the establishment of a $30 million/year foundation focused on economic empowerment of Black Americans and Black Canadians. The NBPA is also funding research to accumulate data on abusive police officers and to help elect prosecutors committed to pursuing investigations and charges. Among other initiatives, the union has pushed players to register to vote and supported their community efforts to get out the vote.
Roberts’ historic leadership has probably-not-coincidentally coincided with the fascinating era of player empowerment across the NBA. As players increasingly refuse to be treated like commodities, Roberts’s words from a 2014 ESPN interview are fitting: “There. Would. Be. No. Money. If not for the players. They create the game.”
For more on Michele Roberts, see her interviewed with ESPN here, or Time Magazine’s coverage by Sean Gregory here.
Special thanks to Aminah Hanif for her assistance in preparing this feature.
About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers.