In early March, Michele Roberts announced she would be stepping down as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association after six years on the job.
Days later, the National Basketball Association said it was suspending its season because of the coronavirus. Basketball was the first major sport to shut down, and the decision became one of the defining moments of normal life around the country rapidly grinding to a halt.
Six months later, Ms. Roberts is still on the job, and working as hard as ever. She helped the league, owners and players design the “bubble” in Orlando, Fla., where the N.B.A. resumed play at the end of July. As part of those negotiations, she worked with stars like LeBron James and Chris Paul to get the league to paint “Black Lives Matter” on every court, embrace the concept of printing messages supporting social justice on jerseys and set up a fund to support economic growth in Black communities.
That work continued last month when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court after the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, by the police in Kenosha, Wis. The Bucks’ decision triggered a leaguewide stoppage, and prompted players in other sports to join the protests. For a short time, it was unclear if the N.B.A. season would continue.
The players ultimately agreed to resume play, but not before Ms. Roberts collaborated with them to get the league to agree to additional efforts to promote racial justice, including a commitment to try to use some N.B.A. arenas as voting sites in November.
Her work isn’t done. While players won a lucrative contract three years ago, the pandemic has upended the economics of live sports, and Ms. Roberts, the union and league officials are trying to figure out when the next N.B.A. season will begin, under what conditions it will be played and how much money players will earn.
Ms. Roberts had no experience in the sports business before taking over the players association. She had spent decades as a lawyer, first as a public defender and then as a corporate attorney at firms including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. But basketball, Ms. Roberts said, was “another business that I had to immerse myself in.”
“I had to understand its historical context, the relationship between management and labor, figure out who the stakeholders were and identify my enemies and friends,” she said in an interview from the bubble. “It was very much the way I prepared when I would get a new corporate client.”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about growing up in New York.
I grew up in the projects in the South Bronx. We were poor. My mom raised us pretty much on her own. She was an extraordinary woman. She kept me safe, happy, fed and sheltered. And she kept me dreaming that there was nothing I couldn’t do. I give myself zero credit for this wistful desire to be great. My mom decided that, and I went along with the program.
What was the program like?
When you got home from school, you didn’t play. You went upstairs and did your homework. We had a television, but it didn’t go on until my mom had a chance to make sure the homework was done. If I brought home a B, I had to explain why it wasn’t an A. It sounds harsh, but I didn’t feel put upon. I enjoyed school. I loved to read.
Why did you decide to become a public defender?
My mom introduced me to the world of litigation and trial work. She was a trial watcher. It was a hobby she somehow developed. She liked to go watch cases and arraignments in a nearby court, and I went with her. I didn’t understand half of what I was seeing, but I thought it was the most magnificent thing in the world, and very early on I wanted to be a lawyer.
What did you learn about the American criminal justice system during your time as a lawyer?
I think the apparatus, the legal system, is second to none on the planet. I mean, if you think about the notion of a presumption of innocence — that someone does not have to prove his or her innocence, but instead that the state has to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — that’s an incredibly high standard. And the system is required to appoint competent counsel. So there’s nothing that strikes me as being necessarily wrong with the legal apparatus.
It’s the operation of the system that can be horrifying, especially if you’re a person of color, and most especially if you’re poor, no matter what color you are. People say the criminal justice system is corrupt, and there’s some truth to that. But the corruption comes from the actors who abuse it. It’s not the system itself that is inherently corrupt.
As a woman leading a group of male players, have you ever felt like your gender was an issue?
Admittedly there was a time when I’d be incredibly conscious of the fact that I was the only woman at a meeting, or the only woman in the courtroom, or the only person of color. But I soon realized that spending energy and time on that was detracting from my ability to do my work. And so I trained myself to stop it. I’ve never encouraged anyone to spend a lot of time sitting in a meeting saying: “I’m the only Black woman in this room. Should I say anything? Do they hate me? Do they think I’m stupid?” That’s a process, a passage that I think everyone who looks like me has to go through. But you’ve got to go through it. And then you’ve got to stay through it. Thankfully I’ve been done with that for a while.
Why do you think we’re seeing players engage in social activism so forcefully these days?
Two words: social media. I have not stopped being amazed at the reach that is made possible through social media. When a new kid comes into the league I’ll check his Facebook and Twitter accounts, and he has 250,000 followers. Because he plays basketball and is very good at it, people want to hear what he has to say. That’s power.
These guys feel both the power but also the responsibility that they have. If they feel passionately about an issue, and they do, they want to be able to say: “This is wrong. This has to change.”
It’s a very different viewing experience now, with “Black Lives Matter” written on the courts, the slogans on the jerseys, and the announcers talking about Breonna Taylor and the Tulsa race massacre.
The world has changed. People always say, “When I watch sports, I just want to shut off the rest of the world.” OK. But the world is still out there. You can spend that two hours watching a basketball game, but the minute you click off that game, it’s still the case that Black men are being killed disproportionately in their contact with police. The world right now is on fire.
I’m a Christian. And so I think that I have responsibility to understand what’s going on in my world and in my community. If I was blissfully ignorant of what’s going on in the streets, I would consider it a sin. And people that want to just put blinders on and just not be bothered with events in the world that are uncomfortable, you know, shame on them.
The walkout following the shooting of Jacob Blake prompted athletes from other sports to take action, too. What did the N.B.A. players learn from that experience?
One of the reasons they decided to continue to play was because they saw the overwhelming amount of media attention that they received, and they observed the influence their behavior had on athletes in other sports. It just underscores that if they really want to influence what’s happening in this country, they can, and they can do it collectively in a way that sends a message throughout the country and around the world. To the extent the players didn’t appreciate their reach, they certainly do now.
How do you counsel players about these sensitive issues? A recent association meeting allegedly got heated when one player, Patrick Beverley, took issue with you discussing the financial implications of an early end to the season.
I don’t really want to comment on the Patrick thing. What happens in our meetings should stay in our meetings. But players have the responsibility to understand the consequences of their actions with respect to the business. And this is a business. This is how they make their living. Some of them are fortunate to be able to do this for 15 or 20 years. But most of them are not. Most of them have an average of less than five years in the league, and those will likely be their best revenue-generating years. So I’ve got to make sure that they understand what they’re doing, how much it will cost and what’s the impact.
Black men and women are underrepresented in front offices around the league. What needs to be done to change that?
When there’s a challenge to diversify in other industries, you frequently hear the complaint, “Well, it’s just hard to find people that have the skill set and experience to fill these roles.” That’s not something that can be claimed in this game at all. So there is no excuse. The way to remedy it is to be more inclusive. It’s that’s simple. Same thing with women. It just comes down to people just putting their money where their mouths are and just hiring more people of color.
How is the bubble in Orlando working so well?
I’m shocked when I turn the TV on and see college kids who are acting as if they are immortal and congregating with abandon. Our players are about the same age, but they got it. They comply, and people have all been safe. That’s the key. You’ve got to have a protocol, and then you’ve got to have cooperation. It breaks my heart to watch kids who want very much to go back to school and then immediately can get engaged in conduct that can shut these institutions down. They should take a lesson from the Orlando bubble. You can make it work if you just follow the protocol.
What do you think next season will look like, both from a protocol perspective and an economic perspective?
I do think we’ll have a season, but I don’t think it will begin in December. Some bubblelike environment may be necessary. I suspect that we will have a hybrid environment, maybe with division bubbles that last for a certain number of months, and then we stop. But the concept of putting our players in a bubble for an entire season is unrealistic.
There will be a revenue drop. I do see a possibility of there being some reopening of some arenas. But if we’re lucky we will see 25 percent of the revenue that ordinarily comes through gate receipts, etc. That’s optimistic. Hopefully we can soften the blow, but I don’t see us packing arenas.