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I tried finding a photo of Michele Roberts in the vast Sportsblog.com media archives, but couldn't locate any. In lieu of that, I figured this photo of David Stern would be appropriate, even though he has retired from his position in the NBA. This is the smiling face many NBA players have sat across from in heated collective bargaining negotiations over the years. The smile only seemed to disappear briefly, when Stern and Russ Granik would slide into their "good cop/bad cop" routine and Stern seemed concerned by Granik's pessimism on the potential outcome of the negotiations.
In every other instance, the smile seemed omnipresent and why shouldn't he smile? David Stern represented NBA owners, many of whom are multi-billionaires, many of whom view their NBA franchises as a pleasant distraction from their regular businesses. When negotiations roll around, the owners tend to move to hardball tactics sooner rather than later, while the NBA players always seem to struggle for unification, for a variety of reasons. These are some of the many challenges Michele Roberts faces as the new head of the Players' Union.
Why are the owners so much more unified than the players? To start, there's only 30 owners, versus more than 400 players. That makes reaching a consensus a little bit easier for the owners. Owners also have far more resources at their disposal than the players. After all, they're mega-rich- the wealthiest 1% of the wealthiest 1%. As much as the media talks about player contracts all the time and keeps dollar amounts attached to player names in the court of public opinion, the average NBA fan would have a really hard time picking nearly any NBA owner (except for a few, like Mark Cuban & Michael Jordan) out of a lineup of 60 something white guys, let alone knowing how many billions these guys (and they are pretty much all guys) are worth. Can Michele Roberts effectively shine the media spotlight on the vast riches NBA owners have reaped from their franchises?
While NBA players do make a lot, as Patrick Ewing once famously (and honestly) said, they spend a lot too. While Ewing has been criticized over the years for that quote, I think it's meaning has largely been mis-interpreted over the years. When he said it, Patrick was the President of the NBA Players' Association, a position many other superstar players in the league selfishly avoided like the plague. Why? Because it might hurt their personal image (and potential endorsement revenue), even if their participation and involvement might help the players negotiate a better contract.
As President, Ewing saw the reality of the NBPA's negotiating position, one that likely still remains today. While he was personally financially secure, he knew a large percentage of his fellow players could not sit out on an owner-imposed lockout indefinitely. Even with a year or more of advanced warning to save money during previous negotiations, more than a few NBA players still lived paycheck to paycheck, saving virtually nothing and in some cases, spending more than they earned. That financial pressure soon begins to crack at the foundation of the Players' negotiating position and everyone knows it, including the owners.
The media could've used Ewing's quote to shame some NBA players into some semblance of fiscal responsibility during the lockout, asking them, "Are you one of the guys who spends a lot?" but they mostly used it to attack Ewing for what they perceived to be his lack of eloquence on the subject. I knew his frustration with his fellow players, because I sat next to him as we heard the stories of woe from guys coming off million dollar contracts. Another superstar NBA player might've been able to deliver the message of the need for fiscal discipline amongst players better than Patrick, but none of them were willing to do it.
NBA owners basically told the union to pound sand during the 1999 lockout, until Michael Jordan showed up across the table. When they thought Jordan might consider coming back to play again, their entire tone changed. It's easy to blow off NBA role players who are willing to serve on the negotiating committee. It's much harder to look LeBron James, Blake Griffin & Kevin Durant in the eyes and tell them they're not worth the money they're being paid and the need to give some back. Will Michele Roberts be able to convince those superstar players to step up and lead their union in negotiations?
It's also tough, if not impossible, to keep secrets in a room of 400 NBA players. I recall one general meeting, where it was noticed that a recently-retired player was in attendance, while discussions were going on about the Union's negotiating position on various issues. That player was removed from the room and when the lockout ended and the season started up, he was cashing paychecks as an employee of an NBA franchise. I think he felt bad about spying for the owners, which may be why he later admitted to me that the owners had "people" in every one of our strategy meetings and on every one of our phone calls when all players were involved. Personally, I think some NBA players had cut side deals with their owners outside of the salary cap. Those players could care less about labor negotiations because they were playing by their own rules and were more than happy to share any inside information they had with their sugar daddy owner.
We knew this as a Union and the Executive Committee and Negotiating Committee made a decision to circle the wagons and limit the amount of information that was shared with every player in the league. This was later turned into a negative against Billy Hunter, but had we not done that, NBA players would've lost what little advantage they might've had on any number of positions. Will Michele Roberts be able to make NBA players feel involved and unified in the process, without compromising the Union's negotiating position?
NBA labor negotiations also allow some agents a rare opportunity to emerge from the shadows of AAU tournaments and try to grab some ego-stroking attention from the media. Their personal agendas often do not match up with the Union's positions, which leads to more conflict, as they bash the union leadership on sports talk shows and try to persuade the players they represent, to demand changes in union negotiating strategy. While these agents are trying to position themselves as the voice of reason that came up with a solution to the NBA lockout, the players they are supposed to be representing, not only in contract negotiations, but in many instances, personal financial management, are burning through their savings, like there's no tomorrow. Will Michele Roberts be able to effectively manage relationships with these and other agents?
Perhaps the biggest challenge the union will always face is turnover. When Abe Pollin bought the Bullets, Barack Obama was just three years old (if you believe birth records). By the time he sold the franchise, Obama was Commander-in-Chief. Conversely, most NBA players who were in the league when Obama was elected will be long gone before he leaves the White House. That means a nearly-entirely new group of NBA players will have to get up to speed on something that last happened when they were in high school or college and that's only after someone convinces them it's worth their attention in the first place. Up until they reached the NBA, these types of issues were always handled by other adults- coaches, AAU handlers, tutors, athletic directors, etc... Will Michele Roberts be able to convince incoming NBA players these issues are too important for them to hand off to someone else?
Michele Roberts will have her hands full and she knows it...and so does the NBA. While past CBA negotiations have seemed to focus pretty squarely on protecting the owners from themselves (we're just foolish businessmen, who would spend ourselves into bankruptcy on our NBA franchises, if you don't agree to these spending caps), future CBA negotiations should have a strong element of protecting the players from themselves. It may not make a difference in the 2017 negotiations, but making sure NBA player contracts provide long-term financial security going forward will help strengthen the Union's negotiating position in future showdowns. Good luck Michele, I'm pulling for you!