Profile

NBA union's new leader called 'relentless, brilliant'

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  • Print.

Michele Roberts with basketball

Michele Roberts: “I want this union to not have a single reason to doubt my commitment.” Photo by Scott Suchman.

Washington, D.C., litigator Michele A. Roberts became the first female executive of a major North American professional sports union when she was selected to lead the National Basketball Players Association in July.

Roberts relishes the challenge, but she doesn't focus on any gender issues. "I'm delighted that people are delighted, and I'm pleased that we can all agree that there shouldn't be artificial barriers based on gender or race," she says. "I've tried all my life to be the best at everything I do. So being the first female executive director is no additional pressure for me."
Washington, D.C., litigator Michele A. Roberts became the first female executive of a major North American professional sports union when she was selected to lead the National Basketball Players Association in July.

Roberts relishes the challenge, but she doesn't focus on any gender issues. "I'm delighted that people are delighted, and I'm pleased that we can all agree that there shouldn't be artificial barriers based on gender or race," she says. "I've tried all my life to be the best at everything I do. So being the first female executive director is no additional pressure for me."

Still, she hasn't denied that there have been gender issues. According to a New York Times profile, she told the player representatives and executive committee members she would soon represent: "My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on."

Roberts previously worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where she was a partner and member of the firm's litigation group. She handled complex criminal and civil litigation, including cases of white-collar crime, products liability, Title VII, premises liability and securities regulations. Roberts also teaches a trial advocacy class at Harvard Law School and is an instructor with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. Roberts faces some serious challenges. She succeeds the beleaguered Billy Hunter, who was ousted in February 2013. The current collective bargaining agreement, which many players felt favored management, expires in 2017 and some have speculated on the possibility of a lockout.

"I want this union to not have a single reason to doubt my commitment," Roberts says. "I know it has been a difficult time for the players.

"First and foremost I want to establish credibility and trust and do that from day one with my players," she says. "I also want to build the best team, because this will be a team effort."


Michele Roberts at a panel discussion in a classroom

Michele Roberts takes part in an impromptu question-and-answer session at the Sherwood Recreation Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Scott Suchman.



A COMMON THREAD

Her litigation experience will be an asset in her new role, she believes. "The day of the one-issue trial ended a long time ago for me in my legal career," she says. "My litigation involved complicated issues, a lot of moving parts and large teams that had to be managed. Litigation is about solving problems. I can't think of a better background to be an executive director."

A common thread she identifies between her litigation experience and her new challenge is the ability to communicate. "As a litigator, you have discussions with jurors, and you have to take complicated concepts and talk to people about these issues," Roberts says. "You can't talk to juries without mastering the art of communication. You must respect your audience."

Roberts honed her litigation skills at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where she had more than 40 jury trials and was chief of the trial division. She also worked in the D.C. offices of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld before leaving for Skadden in 2011. Mark Rochon worked with Roberts at the public defender service from 1983 to 1988. They later were name partners together in the firms Kohlman, Rochon & Roberts and Rochon & Roberts. He raves about his former colleague's abilities.

"She is loyal to the people with whom she works, and she is always willing to do the hard work herself in order to ensure she is prepared," Rochon says. "As a trial lawyer she is outstanding—not only because of her riveting personality, but because she is sincere, committed and brilliant."

Rochon believes the players will be pleased with their choice. "She is a relentless worker, and she is extremely committed to her clients," he notes. "She will provide these players the best representation she can, and that means they will be very fortunate."

"Michele impressed our executive committee from the first time we met her," says a statement from the NBPA's president, Chris Paul, on the union's homepage. "Her qualifications and leadership abilities speak for themselves, but her ability to relate and connect with our players really distinguished her from some of the other very impressive candidates that we interviewed."

While she will represent the most talented basketball players in the world, Roberts doesn't claim to have any special abilities on the court. "I'm a pretty avid basketball fan," she says. "I had no skills on the court, but I grew up with two older brothers with one TV in New York City. That meant I watched a lot of basketball. I remember when I watched my first New York Knicks basketball game. I just love the game."

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "On the Ball: NBA union's new leader called 'relentless, brilliant'."
Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.