TIME Basketball

Meet the First Woman to Run a Major U.S. Pro Sports Union

Michele Roberts
An undated photo of Michele Roberts. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher—Flom LLP/AP

Michele Roberts, star Washington D.C. litigator, talks about her humble beginnings, measuring success, and her changed view on race

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about breaking a glass ceiling,” says Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). She went ahead and shattered one anyway.

Roberts, who was named union chief early this week, is the first woman to head a players union for the top four U.S. pro sports leagues (basketball, football, baseball, hockey). Given the outsized impact of sports business on American culture, the importance of this appointment can’t be overstated. “Michele will inherently be a role model for girls and women aspiring to leadership roles in all sectors,” says Kathryn Olson, CEO for the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Roberts’ resume was too attractive to turn away. She was a star Washington litigator; Washingtonian magazine once named her the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington.” Throughout her career, which began in the D.C. public defender’s office in 1980, Roberts showed an uncanny ability to connect with juries, a skill she hopes to transfer to the negotiating table.

“As a trial lawyer, you have to clarify minds, and change minds,” says Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who recruited Roberts to the public defender’s office. “She does the homework, and understands the arguments that need to be made. There won’t be a time when someone across the bargaining table doesn’t say, ‘Wow, I learned something.’”

During the interview process for her new high-profile gig, Roberts’ personal history helped form a bond with the players. Like some of them, she came from humble beginnings. “She could identify with us,” says Roger Mason Jr., NBPA vice president. Roberts was raised in a South Bronx housing project, and became interested in the law after seeing her older brother’s friends get sent to jail. Often, her mother told her, they couldn’t afford good representation, and it cost them.

“I’m not going to say I was proud to be poor – nobody believes that,” says Roberts. “But I’m proud that my background guided my life.” She still keeps in touch with three children – all named after her – of acquitted clients from her public defender days.

Roberts attended a prep school in the New York City suburbs, and encountered the kind of racism that was all too common at the time. “Many people hadn’t had any contact with black people,” Roberts says during a Tuesday telephone interview from Las Vegas, where the announcement of her appointment was made. “They weren’t necessarily evil, just ignorant.”

For years, this experience framed her worldview. By 1988, she was leading the trial division of the public defender’s office, and the Washington Post magazine ran an extensive profile on her. She said in that story: “I liked school, and all I wanted to do was go to school, finish up and go to college. And then I went to prep school and met these creatures: The students and some of the professors were just blatant racists. And I didn’t know anything about that before I came there. I became more aggressive in my studies, because I refused to let any of these white folks think that I was stupid. It probably has some impact on how I behave in court. Most of my opponents are white, and there’s no question that I’m more aggressive when I’m dealing with them. I am immediately suspicious of white people. I just assume, for better or worse, that they have preconceived notions about the intelligence of black people. Thankfully, I am often proved wrong, at least by people in this office.”

When asked about that comment today, Roberts doesn’t run from it: she calls it her “genuine” feeling at the time, over 25 years ago. But after working in private practice, and at prestigious white-collar firms, since those days — and while further removed from her high school experience — Roberts says her views have “evolved.” She is far from “suspicious” of white people. “The very, very goods news is that’s no longer how I see the world,” says Roberts. “And I’m happy to say that.”

She’s also delighted that the players who hired her were blind to gender. “The only question in my mind, really, was, ‘Were they unwilling to give me a chance because I was a woman?’” Roberts says. “We had so many intelligent conversations about this issue. What’s most impressive to me is, once they saw my accomplishments and the value I can add, that didn’t stop them from making the offer, even while others may have predicted otherwise.”

Roberts is used to winning, and during the last round of negotiations between the NBA and its players, the union fell short. In the collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2011 lockout, the players’ share of basketball-related income declined, from 57% to 50%. Maximum guaranteed contracts were shortened, and harsher penalties levied on teams that exceeded the salary cap. Former executive Billy Hunter was fired in February 2013, after an investigation revealed questionable business practices.

With Roberts now at the helm, the union is ready to look forward. “This is not going to be Billy Hunter vs. the NBA,” says Roberts. “This is Michele Roberts and a team of gladiators. I don’t tout that I have some magic formula. That would be a recipe for disaster.” Roberts’ competitive flair has also impressed the players. (During her public defender days, she almost got a black belt in taekwondo. “But then I had to fight two 16-year-old girls at the same time,” Roberts says. “They beat the hell out of me.”)

“I understand that there’s going to be some level of winning and losing in any big negotiation,” she says. “In the end, I want my clients to be happy. If my clients got the best deal they could under the circumstances, I would consider it a win. I would consider it a catastrophe – and it never would happen – if my clients felt shortchanged in a negotiation.”

Both players and owners can opt out of the current deal in 2017. Although Roberts is not ready to talk specific strategies and priorities during her first full day on the job, it’s not difficult to read the signals — more than likely, the players will exercise that right. “When we speak about value, of course we feel we should be getting more,” says Mason Jr. If a work stoppage were to follow, both Roberts and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose popularity has soared since he took a hard line against Donald Sterling, will take their hits. Fans rarely seep themselves in the mind-numbing economic details. They just want to see basketball.

For now, Roberts – a lifelong hoops fan – is still riding high. “When I got up this morning, I giggled out loud,” says Roberts. “It was still true. I got the job.” And she does feel some weight of history. “I have two nieces that I worship,” says Roberts, who has never married. “And the pride I feel when I hear how proud they are of me is tremendous. It’s important for women to break barriers. But I don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s break some barriers today.’ I wake up and say, ‘What do I have to do to best serve my client?’ And if I happen to break some barriers along the way, God bless me.”

TIME Basketball

Judge Rules Against Donald Sterling’s Move to Block Clippers Sale

Donald Sterling
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling watches the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA preseason basketball game in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2011. Danny Moloshok—AP

Clippers sale to continue

A judge has ruled against Donald Sterling’s attempt to block the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Judge Michael Levanas sided with Donald Sterling’s estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who negotiated the deal and pursued the court’s approval of the sale, after the NBA fined her husband $2.5 million and banned him from the sport for life for making racist comments, the Associated Press reports.

Shelly Sterling also removed her husband from the family trust following two doctors’ opinions that he had Alzheimer’s disease and was unfit to make legal decisions. Donald Sterling claims he was manipulated and “blindsided” by the medical evaluations and had another doctor attest to his mental competency. He is expected to continue to fight the sale, as he has previously vowed.

[AP]

TIME Photos

Feel Good Friday: 14 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From inflatable toads to Taiwanese "frog men," here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

TIME Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Stop Keeping College Athletes Poor and Trapped

Ed O''Bannon
Ed O'Bannon playing for the UCLA Bruins in 1995. O’Bannon, along with a few other players, is suing for players to have control over the use of their likenesses, which earn millions of dollars for the NCAA. J.D. Cuban—Getty Images

Without unions, college athletics will remain a subtle but insidious form of child abuse.

A new survey finds that 60% of incoming college football players support unions for college athletes. The horror! Were such unions allowed, our glorious cities would crumble to nothing more than shoddy tents stitched together from tattered remnants of Old Glory; our government officials would be loincloth-clad elders gathered in the rubble of an old McDonald’s passing a talking stick; our naked children would roam the urban wilderness like howling wolves, their minds as blank as their lost Internet connection. We would be without hope, dreams or a future.

Or at least that’s what you might believe based on the nuclear reaction a few months ago when a dapper man named Ramogi Huma attempted to destroy everything that America holds sacred with just such a proposal to unionize college athletes. His argument was simple: that college athletes should be classified as employees of their colleges and therefore receive certain basic benefits. He did not advocate player salaries but only programs to minimize brain-trauma risks among athletes, a raise in scholarship amounts, more financial assistance for sports-related injuries, an increase in graduation rates and several other similar goals.

You would have thought he’d proposed dressing the Statue of Liberty in a star-spangled thong.

But Huma is not alone in his assault on the NCAA’s ironfisted control of all things related to college athletics that might generate income (as befits its new motto: “If it earns, it’s ours”). Other current and former college athletes are questioning the NCAA-brand Kool-Aid. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, along with a few other players, is suing for players to have control over the use of their likenesses, which earn millions of dollars for the NCAA — but not a cent for the players. Another class-action antitrust suit has been filed to remove the cap on players’ compensation — currently limited to the value of the scholarship they receive plus room and board — as an illegal restraint of trade.

Predictably, the NCAA is against any scheme to get college players paid, claiming that unionizing will “completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone to attend college.” Attend but not necessarily complete, especially if you suffer any long-term injury. Because if you don’t compete, you don’t complete.

And the NCAA has the backing from some powerful Washington politicians who, according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), worry about strikes that will “destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) also chimed in: “I haven’t looked at the specifics of this and what would be required, but having formally chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee and worked with the National Labor Relations Act for the last 30 years, I find it a bit bizarre.”

Nothing more reassuring than someone who acknowledges he hasn’t really “looked at the specifics” but has an opinion anyway.

Well, Congressman, here are some specifics:

  • Last year, NCAA March Madness made $1 billion for CBS and Turner Broadcasting.
  • The NCAA takes in more than $6 billion a year.
  • The NCAA president made $1.7 million last year.
  • The NCAA’s top 10 basketball coaches earn salaries that range from $2,200,000 to $9,682,032.

While these coaches and executives may deserve these amounts, they shouldn’t earn them while the 18-to-21-year-old kid who plays every game and risks a permanent career-ending injury gets only scholarship money — money that can be taken away if the player is injured and can’t contribute to the team anymore.

The irony is that the NCAA and other supporters claim paying athletes would sully the purity of college sports — desecrating our image of a youthful clash of school rivalries that always ends at the malt shop with school songs being sung and innocent flirting between boys in letterman jackets and girls with pert ponytails and chastity rings. In reality, what makes college sports such a powerful symbol in our culture is that it represents our attempt to impose fairness on an otherwise unfair world. Fair play, sportsmanship and good-natured rivalry are lofty goals to live by. By treating the athletes like indentured servants, we’re tarnishing that symbol and reducing college sports to just another exploitation of workers, no better than a sweatshop.

Everyone’s hope was that once these inequities were exposed, the NCAA would do the right thing. That hasn’t happened on a meaningful scale. Instead, it battles in court, issues press releases and appeals to Norman Rockwell nostalgia.

The athletes are left with the choice of crossing their fingers and hoping their fairy godmothers will persuade the NCAA to give up money that it doesn’t have to, or forming a collective bargaining group to negotiate from a place of unified strength.

Most Americans agree that the athletes are being shortchanged. A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll concluded that 51% of Americans believe that universities should be required to cover medical expenses for former players if those expenses were the result of playing for the school. A whopping 73% believe that athletic scholarships should not be withdrawn from students who are injured and are no longer able to play.

But when it comes to these same student-athletes’ forming a union, an HBO Real Sports and Marist College Center for Sports Communication poll showed 75% of Americans opposed to the formation of a college-athlete union, with only 22% for it.

Why such a difference between wanting equity and supporting the best means to achieve it? Despite 14.5 million Americans’ belonging to labor unions, we’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them.

The love: Unions can be like protective parents arguing with an arrogant teacher over their child’s unfair grade. The hate: Unions can be like bossy spouses who complain about all the work they do for you while shoveling corn chips into their maw on the La-Z-Boy.

Our relationship with college athletes is much clearer. We adore and revere them. They represent the fantasy of our children achieving success and being popular. Watching them play with such enthusiasm and energy for nothing more than school pride is the distillation of Hope for the Future.

But strip away the rose-colored glasses and we’re left with a subtle but insidious form of child abuse.

Which raises the question: How will things change?

When I was a young, handsome player at UCLA, with a full head of hair and a pocket full of nothing, I sometimes had a friend scalp my game tickets so I could have a little spending money. I couldn’t afford a car, which scholarship students in other disciplines could because they were permitted to have jobs, so I couldn’t go anywhere. I got bored just sitting around my dorm room and frustrated wandering around Westwood, passing shops in which I couldn’t afford to buy anything.

How will things change? It’s possible the NCAA will eventually capitulate to these commonsense requests, but since it hasn’t so far, the only reason it would change its mind now would be the threat of a union. Either way, the union will have caused positive change for these young athletes. But without a union, these student-athletes will be without any advocates and will always be at the whim of the NCAA and the colleges and universities that profit from them.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

MONEY Sports

How the Economics of Playing Football and Basketball Compare

That loud roar you heard this week was NFL training camp getting under way. With less than six weeks until the Green Bay Packers head to Seattle for a game against the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, fans across the country are following every move of their favorite players and planning for their fantasy football draft.

We decided to take a look at some of the important markers in the life-cycle of a professional athlete. From sporting gear to concussion rates, the gallery below provides a snapshot of what parents have to pay to get their kids on the field—and how long players stay in the big leagues once they actually get there.

To put the numbers in a little bit of context we compared football’s costs to basketball’s.

TIME Basketball

Clippers CEO: Doc Rivers Will Quit as Coach if Sterling Stays

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers talks during a press conference prior to a game between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, in Los Angeles, on April 29, 2014 Kelvin Kuo—USA Today Sports/Reuters

Interim Clippers CEO Richard Parsons described the possible departure of Doc Rivers as "a disaster"

Doc Rivers, coach of the L.A. Clippers, will leave if Donald Sterling remains owner, according to interim Clippers CEO Richard Parsons.

Parsons’ comments were made as he testified in a court case that will determine whether Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly Sterling had the right to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.

Donald Sterling faced NBA banishment after he made racist statements in April this year.

“Doc is troubled by this maybe more so than anybody else,” said Parsons. “If Mr. Sterling continues as owner, he does not want to continue as coach.”

Doc Rivers, who has coached the Clippers for just over a year, has been key in trying to sustain calm within the team’s camp.

“If Doc were to leave, that would be a disaster,” said Parsons. “Doc is the father figure, the one who leads.”

In a related development, Donald Sterling filed a new lawsuit on Tuesday against Shelly Sterling and the NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He is seeking damages for their allegedly defrauding him, violating corporate law and attempting to sell the Clippers.

TIME NBA

Donald Sterling and Steve Ballmer Meet for the First Time, Unproductively

A supporter holds a photo cutout of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling while standing in line for the NBA Playoff game 5 between Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in Los Angeles
A supporter holds a photo cutout of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling while standing in line for the NBA Playoff game 5 between Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in Los Angeles on April 29, 2014. Mario Anzuoni— Reuters

No progress was made on Ballmer's bid to buy the L.A. Clippers, but ESPN reports it was otherwise a "friendly conversation."

It was a private meeting between two men very recently and very publicly ushered from power: one the erstwhile leader of a once iconic tech company whose stock prices swiftly rebounded upon news of his resignation, the other the former owner of a basketball team whose departure from it only parenthetically had anything to do with basketball (in that his apparently racist vitriol was targeted at, well, people the color of some of his basketball players).

The latter, Donald Sterling, was banned from the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the remainder of his life after TMZ leaked a recording of some comments he made to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, concerning her friendship with black people. He’s consequently in the throes of selling the Los Angeles Clippers to the former, ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who stepped down from the company last year after thirteen tumultuous years at the helm, marked by the surge of the Apple Empire and the ultimate marking of his once-eminent firm as a brand that just wasn’t cool anymore. When all else fails, one supposes, buy a basketball team; Ballmer successfully made a bid of $2 billion to buy the Clippers within a month of the Sterling controversy.

The two men met at Sterling’s Beverly Hills home to negotiate the sale of the Clippers franchise together with Sterling’s wife Shelly. And while the crew reached no definitive settlement, ESPN reports that it was otherwise a perfectly pleasant conversation, considering Sterling’s notorious obstinacy on the matter.

It’s a trickier deal than just writing a check. Two years after Sterling bought the team in 1979, he granted co-ownership rights to Shelly, from whom he has been estranged since December 2012. Donald is banned from the NBA; Shelly is not. The NBA briefly considered snatching all license of ownership from the entire Sterling clan — their son-in-law, Eric Miller, has served as the Clippers’ “director of basketball administration” — but not before Shelly arranged the sale to Ballmer in late May. Donald condemned her actions, and a day later sued the NBA for $1 billion.

He’d drop the suit all of three days later, though he has since called his wife of 59 years a “pig.”

The warring couple met on Sunday to finally discuss business, two days before Shelly was to testify in the civil case between them over whether or not she was justified in her negotiations with Ballmer (she’ll be in court on Tuesday in Los Angeles). After a three hour conversation concerning all the tumult of the last few months — oh, to be a fly on that wall — the two invited Ballmer to come over the next day to further address the matter of the Clippers’ sale, which was supposed to have been finalized a week ago. It’s the first time the two men met in person to talk about the deal.

The NBA, meanwhile, twiddles its thumbs and waits. It’s widely assumed Ballmer will ultimately take the reins from the Sterlings, but if nothing’s certain by September 15, the league has the option to take matters into its own hands and sell the team itself, since the 2014-15 season will begin just six weeks later.

TIME NBA

Poll: What Jersey Number Should LeBron James Wear: 6 or 23?

All hail King James

King James is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he needs your opinion. LeBron asked his Instagram followers for their input: Should he wear number 6 or number 23? The championship player wore number 6 in Miami after leaving the Cavs, possibly resurfacing some resentment in Cleveland. Or will LeBron James choose number 23, the number he gave up to honor Michael Jordan?

Take the poll below.

TIME U.S.

How LeBron James Is Just Like Us

Miami Heat
Miami Heat's LeBron James talks with the media during a press conference at the AmericanAirlines Arena on June 17, 2014, in Miami. Miami Herald—MCT via Getty Images

The NBA player faced that excruciating tension that comes with modern mobility: choosing between home and opportunity.

Every schoolchild in America should have to read LeBron James’ marvelously hokey essay in Sports Illustrated explaining why he’s going home to northeast Ohio. Before that, of course, they should watch a brief clip of 2010’s infamous The Decision special on ESPN. Four years ago this month, the NBA superstar announced he was leaving Cleveland and “taking [his] talents to South Beach” where he thought he would have the best “opportunity” to win championships.

In one simple, 6’8” lesson, attentive students would grasp a fundamental tension that lies at the core of American history and culture: the conflict between the comfort of home and the lure of one’s dreams.

We Americans still like to think of our country as full of new beginnings, what sociologist Philip Slater once called “a culture of becoming.” Our uniqueness, as Slater put it, has always been “in our aptitude for change and our willingness to engage in continual self-creation.”

But a country that prides itself on its mobility—geographic, economic and otherwise—is, by definition, built on a foundation of painful separations, discarded identities and homesickness.

When James left Cleveland to win championships elsewhere, he was labeled a shallow, narcissistic ingrate who was turning his back on the people who had raised and nurtured him. Much of the country seemed to agree. But in his letter explaining why he’s returning to Cleveland, James took great pains to declare that home and family were more important to him now than professional success. He mused about the importance of raising his family in his hometown of Akron, 40 minutes south of Cleveland. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” he wrote.

I suppose all cultures sanctify the home, but Americans need to add that extra dose of schmaltz. If James’ experience tells us anything, it’s that—myths aside—following your dreams always has come at personal cost.

In our cultural imagination, “home sweet home” is where our genuine selves reside. Once we venture beyond its radius, beyond the roles ascribed to us by birth, we risk being accused of trying to be something that we’re not. We commonly employ terms like “wannabe,” “poseur,” “social climber,” and “sellout” to keep people in their place.

It turns out that the very concept of an authentic self is a product of modern mobility.

The idea emerged in Europe in the 16th Century with the end of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist economy. Suddenly it became possible for more and more people to leave the place and class in which they were born. In new urban environments with mixed populations, people were no longer sure where they belonged in society or how they should relate to their neighbors. “The pleasures and possibilities of social mobility,” Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm has written, “coincided with potentials for guile and deceit.” In a world where former inferiors could pretend to outrank you, you put a premium on people’s ability to honestly declare who they really were.

For the longest time, Mexicans who chose to remain in their home country viewed emigrants to the U.S. with a mixture of admiration, resentment and envy. They used a derogatory term for their U.S.-born cousins that meant something like “watered-down Mexican” and suggested these Americanized relatives had cashed in their culture for material possessions.

In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes of the pressure many black migrants to the North felt when they made return visits to their family and friends who remained in the South. Her own mother worried about appearances as she drove back to her hometown of Rome, Georgia, in her brand-new 1956 Pontiac. “No migrant could, none would dare let on that their new life was anything less than perfect,” she wrote. “They had to prove that their decision to go north was the superior and right thing to do.”

If the expectations and resentment of others weren’t enough, those who’ve gone off to seek better lives have always been susceptible to the scourge of loneliness. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, American doctors widely acknowledged and took homesickness seriously, according to Weber State University historian Susan G. Matt. Newspapers published the tragic stories—and sometimes letters—of migrants who suffered from nostalgia, as homesickness was then called. In 1887, a 42-year-old Irish priest, J.M. McHale, reportedly fell ill not long after arriving in New York. “I cannot eat; my heart is breaking. … I am homesick,” he is quoted as saying. “My dear country, I will never set foot on your green shores again. Oh my mother how I long to see you.” Shortly after this proclamation, he lost consciousness and died. Nostalgia was listed as the cause of death.

Throughout the 20th Century, scholars documented the psychological pressures of socioeconomic mobility. In 1956, University of Chicago sociologist Peter M. Blau concluded that the upwardly mobile can suffer from having to “choose between abandoning hope of translating his occupational success into social acceptance” by his new peer group and “sacrificing valued social ties and customs” of the peers he grew up with. In 1973, University of North Dakota sociologist Alfred M. Mirande found that “upwardly mobile persons are relatively isolated from kin and friends, while downwardly mobile person have the highest level of kinship participation and are not isolated from friends.”

Today, despite the triumph of global capitalism, an individual’s origins are still seen as the source of their authentic selves while their aspirational selves are vulnerable to accusations of phoniness.

The Pew Research Center’s 2008 study on American mobility found that most Americans have moved to a new community at least once. Jobs and business opportunities are the most frequently cited reasons people give for moving today. By contrast, three-quarters of those who have remained in their hometowns their entire lives cite the pull of family ties as the main reason for staying put.

LeBron James, while a whole lot wealthier than the rest of us, faced the same dilemma as millions of Americans, past and present. That excruciating tension between the tug of home and the allure of opportunity has been central to so many family dramas and the source of so much resentment and guilt. After more than two centuries of mobility, maybe what all Americans need are those t-shirts you see fans wearing in Cleveland. You know, the ones that say “Forgiven.”

Gregory Rodriguez is publisher of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Imperfect Union column. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser