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NBA Players Union Head Michele Roberts Says No Lockout Expected


Last year, Michele Roberts made history when she became the first woman to head up a major North American sports union, the National Basketball Players Association. At the time, the union was fractured by scandal. It's been up to Roberts to repair the damage and represent the interests of players going forward. When the NBA playoffs - with the NBA playoffs starting this week, we thought it was a good time to check in with her. She joined us earlier from New York, and I asked her what her connection was to basketball.

MICHELE ROBERTS: Simply that of a fan. I have two older brothers who both played basketball, and when we grew up - when I grew up, we had one television. And they dictated the terms of watching, and that - we watched a lot of Knick basketball. And so, you know, for me, when you watched basketball, you love basketball.

CORNISH: And you grew up in the Bronx, right?

ROBERTS: I did - South Bronx.

CORNISH: One of the things I found fascinating in past interviews, you mentioned feeling a kind of kinship with the players, that you felt you had a similar background. In what way?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, it's not to say that every player comes from the inner city or comes from a poor background, but a good number of them do. And those were the players that I initially began to connect with. I viewed them as the kids that could have been from my neighborhood - they came from neighborhoods like mine - that were fortunate enough to make it. And, you know, I had a sense of how much of a struggle it was for them. And I found myself loving the players as much as I love the game.

CORNISH: Now, the previous CEO, Billy Hunter, was ousted in 2013. The players voted him out after an independent audit accused him of mismanagement and nepotism. I can understand if trust between the players and union leadership was essentially shot. Tell us what you saw there. I mean, what were - what kind of shop was being run, and how do you want to change it?

ROBERTS: I had to reestablish credibility. The good news was that there was a level of enthusiasm among my players for taking the union forward. There are players that are understandably remaining skeptical, and they should. And I realize that I have to earn their respect.

CORNISH: How do you know? Like, how are you getting that sense?

ROBERTS: Well, I actually have, believe it or not, met with every team and just about every single player. And my players are not shy at all. They are really quite clear. There have been a number that have said, you know, look, we were really damaged by what Hunter did, and I, for one, am skeptical. And you're going to have to demonstrate to me that you're going to put the interest of this union before any others. And that's a welcome - a welcome challenge.

CORNISH: Going back to the last contract negotiations in 2011, it's been noted that the players' cut of basketball-related income was cut from 57 percent to 50 percent. And at the time, owners claimed that they were losing money. And, of course, now there's this new television deal that pays the league 2.7 billion - with a B - dollars a year. And meanwhile, you know, we've had the Clippers recently were sold in LA for $2 billion. How does all of this change the atmosphere for the next set of contract negotiations?

ROBERTS: We don't have - and I don't expect to hear the owners this time around - suggest that any changes - drastic changes in either BRI or otherwise are necessitated because of a lack of money. That, as I say, dog won't hunt. And I don't think they're going to make those arguments any longer. So I'd like to think, therefore, we don't have to do things like lock each other out or strike.

CORNISH: One thing that's interesting though is that fans, it seems at times, are pro-owner when it comes to labor disputes, especially when those disputes turn into work stoppages or take away the games that they love to watch - right? - if there are lockouts. And that - the narrative usually turns into, like, hey, the players should take a deal. They get paid a ton of money. And how do you counter that 'cause the numbers that do get thrown around, especially for the marquee players, are enormous.

ROBERTS: What's amazing is that the numbers that are thrown around don't include the billions of dollars that the owners make. And once there is a fair discussion of the enormity of the money that's being made by the owners, I think and I believe that fans will be less willing to suggest that it's the players that are being greedy.

CORNISH: My other question is about the age limit. Players in the NBA have to wait until they're 19 before they can enter the league. Commissioner Adam Silver has publically said he wants that age to be 20. Help us understand, especially for the parents who may be listening, what is the union's problem with that?

ROBERTS: People should understand we're not talking about hordes of 17, 18-year-olds that are trying to get into the game. We're talking, probably, in any given year, between five and 10 that arguably are qualified. The union's position was and remains that we are not going to support a policy that prevents people that are ready to make a living from making a living. And I'll say, especially given that the alternative is to stay in college and make a lot of money for the NCAA and receive no compensation, that seems grossly unfair.

CORNISH: Well, in a recent ESPN story, the headline was the woman who will change sports. No pressure there, right?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Nah. None. You know, I think the fact that I'm sort of an outsider - I mean I didn't grow up in the industry - is more significant in many ways than the fact that I'm a woman. Who knows? But it's a challenge, and the fact that I'm a woman and that other women are pleased and fathers are pleased for their daughters, I mean, all of that was something I didn't really think about. Now I do. My plan had been to be the best executive director of NBPA possible. So that was going to happen, but now that people are watching me, I guess I'd better make sure it does happen.

CORNISH: Michele Roberts. She's the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and best of luck.

ROBERTS: Thank you for having me. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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