How NBA Players Could Benefit From Having Major Sports’ First-Ever Female Union Head


The National Basketball Players’ Association on Monday elected a new executive director who will lead the union in what may be the most contentious negotiations on the horizon for any major sports league. Michele Roberts, a DC-based lawyer, is also the first ever woman elected to head up a major sports union in North America.

“It shows how open-minded our players are,” Chris Paul, Clippers point guard and NBPA president, told CBS. “With any of the candidates, it wasn’t about race or gender. It was about who was going to be the best person in that position.”

While Roberts was Paul’s top choice for the position, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo, others involved in the process were unhappy with her lack of a background in basketball issues. Some agents involved even called on the NBPA to delay the vote. In the end, of the three finalists, Roberts was favored for her litigating background at the highly influential firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, with work focusing on white collar criminal charges. She won 32 out of the 36 votes cast by the NBPA executive committee.

In the coming months, the NBA will work through several important issues for players, including the negotiation of a new television deal that will impact player salaries and a potential lockout over the next collective bargaining agreement that could have players opting out as soon as 2017. And players might have reason to celebrate Roberts breaking the hardwood ceiling at such a volatile time.

Women don’t have many of the problems that can sometimes bring negotiations to a halt — men are more often serious risk-takers, while women are more likely to move negotiations forward. Stubbornness is a trait often rewarded among male leaders. Women, meanwhile, tend to be less corrupt and run more profitable companies. Women have been shown to bargain more aggressively than men in certain situations, particularly when they’ve been told explicitly that they should do so. Women and men also may make smarter decisions in risky, pressure-filled situations when working together, as Roberts and Paul will. When it comes to labor, women have been found to have higher win rates, as do people of color representing other people of color.

The NBPA has been in something of an ordered chaos for months. The former president stepped down after allegations emerged that he had extended his own contract without following organizational guidelines. The absence of an executive director for the Players’ Association was sorely felt at the end of last season, when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments were caught on tape. Then, the interim director Ron Klempner handed over the reigns on the players’ response to former player and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Johnson and a committee that was supposed to shepherd through the process for a new executive director instead ditched that process last week, saying, “while we’d hoped to help bring this to completion, it’s clear that won’t be possible.”

Roberts’s story — a woman of color being brought in during a particularly difficult time — is a common one. Women and people of color are more likely to be hired in top positions when times are tough for an organization. And, if they can’t change the company’s course while in charge, those barrier-breakers are more likely to be let go.

After the vote, Roberts expressed optimism about the future of the NBPA. “We are going to have a team, a very strong team, what I call a team of gladiators,” she said, according to CBS, “that’s going to help these men and women, again, go in the direction they choose to go. It’s a new day.”