“Winter is coming” isn’t just a too-often quoted line from HBO’s gasp-inducing series Game of Thrones.
Despite an exciting and extremely highly rated NBA Finals, it should be those words that keep Adam Silver and the host of NBA owners he represents awake at night. In this case the oncoming storm is Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and an impending work stoppage is the winter of many a basketball fans’ discontent.
Roberts, a Wesleyan and UC Berkley educated litigator, isn’t playing any games out here in these streets. Roberts is almost nothing like former NBPA Director Billy Hunter, who was ousted by the players in 2014 for a variety of malfeasance including allegations of nepotism, financial irregularities, and general incompetence.
Roberts is the real deal and she’s out to negotiate a much better contract than the one the players accepted in 2011. During her interview for the job she reiterated that was she was more than up for the task. “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” Holy sh*t. This is the type of leader the players need.
To say that the lockout didn’t end well for the players in 2011 is an understatement. For example, the players were previously splitting Basketball Related Income (BRI) with the owners on a 57%-47% split. By locking the players out, the owners were able to coax massive concessions walking the BRI split all the way down to 49%.
Although the current deal isn’t schedule to expire until 2020, either side can opt out at the end of next season. The players are almost guaranteed to do so.
In 2011, the owners were able to wait the players out financially and back them into a pretty bad deal in the short-term. Poor planning and a lack of a financial nest-egg left many low/mid salaried players at odds with some with their high-salaried teammates because they could not withstand a protracted lockout. Some low and high salary players who were financially leveraged to the hilt ultimately caved as the lockout wore on.
The owner’s strategy worked to perfection. They argued that they were losing money and demanded heavy concessions from the players. The players came back to the table needing a check and accepted an almost unconscionable 49%/51% split of BRI.
That’s not happening this time and Michele Roberts has all but come out and stated this. Roberts has taken an extremely aggressive public negotiating stance a full year before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires. In an in-depth interview with ESPN the Magazine, she stated:
“’Why don’t we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players.’ Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money.”
While you could argue that this is just posturing and an attempt to set the tone, I believe she is serious when she states, “Thirty more owners can come in and nothing will change. These guys [the elite players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”
This time the players association is coming for blood and Ms. Roberts is riding up blasting my favorite Bone Thugs-n-Harmony jam “Mr. Bill Collector.”
* warning explicit language
Roberts’s comments above touch upon an extremely salient issue. The players, always have been, and always will be the product here. Fans and viewers tuned into the NBA Finals at record numbers to watch LeBron James and Steph Curry utilize their God-given and well-tuned basketball abilities. The NBA is a star-driven league and the players are the draw. The league’s infrastructure is a by-product of these stars.
Let’s face it, despite their collective business acumen and amassed fortunes, no one is lining up to watch Dan Gilbert, Joe Lacob, or Steve Ballmer fill out profit and loss statements. The owners know this. But most importantly, Roberts knows this. With the Clippers and Hawks selling for a combined eleventy ca-jillion dollars, the go-to argument that the league/owners are in dire financial straits isn’t going to fly at all. Michele Roberts is the right leader at a pivotal time for the NBPA.
As the first Black female to lead a player’s union of a major professional sports league, she’s accustomed to the deck being stacked against her. Adam Silver and the NBA owners would be well served not to underestimate Michele Roberts, lest they end up in the bone yard of past men who trifled with her.