Updated with comment from NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith
The process was lengthy, but, when it was over, NBA players had made a history-making choice for the next executive director of their union.
Michele Roberts, relatively unheralded outside legal circles and the Beltway, became the first woman to lead a North American men’s pro sports union, getting 32 of 36 votes among player representatives and executive committee members in Las Vegas. A trial lawyer in Washington with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, a firm that has provided outside counsel to the NBA, Roberts told CBSSports.com that she has never done legal work for the league.
“Let’s be clear: I’m sure there were people that noticed I was a girl,” Roberts told reporters after being elected on the third vote. “Having said that, I frankly wanted to address that question up front whenever I spoke with any of the members of the executive committee and the union. My sense was, the only thing people cared about was my resolve.”
She’ll need it. Players believe that the collective bargaining agreement that settled the last lockout was favorable to owners and, when this one expires in 2017, she’ll face NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, whose popularity soared in the wake of the Donald Sterling mess. With the backing of National Basketball Players Association President Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, she won election as the anti-Billy Hunter, who was fired 18 months ago.
In selecting Roberts, NBA players followed those in the NFL who chose another skilled litigator from Washington when they elected DeMaurice Smith executive director of the NFL Players Association. Smith told the Post he has known Roberts well for years, dating back to their early legal careers when Smith was in the U.S. attorney’s office and Roberts was a public defender, and praised her as “formidable” and “a wonderful person.”
“Michele is a tremendously skilled lawyer, a very talented trial attorney who is formidable in a very measured way. She excelled as a public defender and in private practice at one of the world’s largest and best law firms. To people who think she’s an unknown quantity, she’s quite well-known in legal circles and has represented the biggest and best-known clients in America.”
Smith praised her “extensive qualifications” and added that she is “well-suited” to her new job. “I know the players have chosen well.”
Roberts grew up in the projects in New York and, along with her mother, attended as many trials as she could while growing up. In high school, she became determined to defend disadvantaged people after seeing her older brother’s friends in jail, she told LawCrossing.com. “They never seemed to catch a break,” Roberts said. “And my mother communicated to me that was because they didn’t have good lawyers. Very early on I decided I was going to not only be a lawyer, but a public defender, representing poor people in criminal cases.”
She received an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan and a law degree from the University of California, then spent eight years as a public defender. “I love that several grateful former criminal clients have named their children after me,” she told Chambers-Associate.com. “A couple of Micheles and Michaels are my namesakes.” She rose through the ranks and continued to burnish her reputation, gaining an acquittal for one of 10 people who stood trial after the 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller.
Roberts continued to burnish her reputation and rose through the ranks before deciding to enter private practice because, she said, of her dislike for supervising employees. She left to concentrate on civil and white-collar criminal litigation and administrative proceedings, joining Akin Gump and leaving for Skadden in 2011.
Her new responsibilities will suit her well, as will her determination. Already, she has a plan.
“They’ve got their union back, and I’m going to make sure that they are empowered to take their union exactly where they want their union to go,” Roberts said (via USA Today). “I am a bad woman, but I’m not that bad. We are going to have a team, a very strong team, what I call a team of gladiators, that’s going to help these men and women, again, go in the direction they choose to go. It’s a new day. It’s not a one-person, Superman, ‘I’ve got this.’ It’s going to be a team.”