A Love Letter to NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts

(Photo: Jennifer S. Altman/Washington Post)

Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of National Basketball Players Association

If I were an NBA athlete, the following would be my love letter to you Michele.

Where have you been our love? Where has been this fire so strong of thee? Where has been this commitment that we’ve needed to represent such a purposefully muted voice? A voice of us knowing fully what it is to be shunned, criminalized, sexualized, objectified, bamboozled and run amok? We’ve been together for a year now, and we’d like to congratulate you on your success over that time. As the first Black woman (let alone woman in general) to lead any major sport player union, we need your love; we need your strength; we most definitely need your courage to galvanize our ranks, and take us into the next era where our beloved soul rock soul will be seen on more TV’s across the world.

Since that is a reality, and the game of basketball – that soul rock soul – is quickly becoming the most popular sport globally, your presence is challenging how fans view us in more human ways. We know fans see us as therapy to escape the hard work week and ever so cumbersome mundanity of their lives, but in that therapy, shouldn’t there also be truth?

The truth here is that basketball is exploding in ways unforeseen financially. Teams are worth, on average, a record 1.1 billion dollars. That is very interesting for a league that has always been seen with a skeptical eye because of its racial makeup. With the conversation surrounding LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland and join the Miami Heat, where he won two championships in four years, casual fans across the world are becoming more knowledgeable of NBA practices simply because LeBron took control of his own legacy. The league is making more money across the world as evidenced by the blockbuster 9-year 24 billion dollar TV deal. What’s also evident is the pool of savvy businessmen wanting a piece of that ever more voluptuous pie.  “During the past five years, 11 of the league’s 30 teams have changed hands”. Is such interest simply about being the cool pro sports team owner, or more about jockeying position to benefit from the current NBA boom? If the NBA was truly losing money, why would more billionaires seek to become NBA owners?

The convo surrounding LeBron James drives the NBA currently, just as it is true for Serena Williams in tennis and Floyd Mayweather in boxing. Five straight NBA Finals appearances is proof of his worth to the league. His NBA pay doesn’t dictate that fact (neither does Serena’s), and because fans are accustomed to a certain salary structure because of how athletes are covered as if every athlete is a public nuisance at times, many will be uncomfortable with the salary spike on the horizon. Tristan Thompson is an example of this. When it’s reported he turned down a 4-year 52 million dollar offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thompson is seen as absolutely out of his mind. With a 67.1 million salary cap expected to balloon to 108 million in just two years, what would be illogical is for any NBA player to sign for less than that projected spike ensures.

Michele, you are a Black woman. You know what goes on in the hood and why projects all across America are mired in a dystopic reality. You also see how that reality is shifted to blame the victims instead of those of local government leadership, and by extension, your former city, Washington, D.C. NBAPA offices are in Harlem, so you fully know the effect of unbalanced policy regarding the inner city. The current conversations of police brutality become distorted vehicles ensuring the blame stays how it’s currently perceived, so as the true conversations remain vague in conjecture, all of that tempered wisdom arm you with a sense of consciousness perfect for your current position. You are a high profile soul model because of your accomplished actions, and through those actions more within the inner city will find reason to understand their worth via a sports lens.

As a CBA opt out looms from the players that most likely will lead to another lockout, everything that you are will benefit labor when negotiations open in earnest.

Those days in the courtroom with your Mom showed a clear plan of professional existence. You saw how the poor are treated when walking into a courtroom sans competent representation. We are in no ways calling ourselves poor, but compared to the money teams are raking in, we are essentially living trendy on pennies. Timing is everything, and now that our time is here to reap the benefits so many others seek to keep for themselves, there is no other gladiator alive that we’d have leading us.

There is a soul of sports, and what gets lost is how that soul is measured and packaged to fans. The stories of how we got here are cast aside so fantasies are more highly regarded than those stories encapsulating our actual livelihoods. If those looking like the majority of us only make up 4.7% of all news rooms, a disconnect will become even more problematic. There were days when our families were on trial for the most minimum of infractions in the hood, and those days have affected every step of our development because we’ve had to take care of our family members caught up in the system justly and unjustly. Those responsibilities have become a necessary hindrance of sorts, because they’ve given us more things to think about, and as a result, expanded how we view life where others just haven’t had those experiences. Despite the money we make, those scars are every reminder that we’re just dressed up mascots with a fat paycheck here to entertain families that can afford an expensive night at an NBA arena. Everyone has a story, but there are many times too much of an indifferent dichotomy in telling our stories.  Far too often, the questions asked resemble nothing more than fans viewing athletes through a lens of us metaphorically resembling porn stars showing and proving our craft in a claustrophobic fish bowl. We just want to talk about the game and our desire to augment our lives through our business dealings the same as ownership. We’re asked 19 times over what we are doing for our communities, but those same questions are rarely asked of those signing our paycheck. Reasons exist why we don’t want to talk to even the most judicious of reporters. If the media at large knew our lives, they’d understand that before and after games are the last times we want to talk about what happened with hypothetically a family member we haven’t talked to in years. This is a family member that we just found out through a locker room question that they unfortunately ran afoul with the law? If we don’t respond accordingly, we’re called the bad guys, and that is something that isn’t the case with the media itself is it? With the explosion of social media, fans are privy to every moment where a smart phone is present, and while sports are becoming more entertainment than athletics, our private lives should remain just that, private.

During the playoffs and Finals, we’re asked to respond to reporter questions in a press conference setting. Since the locker room leaves us vulnerable to sometimes insidious intent, why not leave the locker room available to only those employed by the organization? Wouldn’t that cut out a lot of confusion regarding how we deal with media? Also, since that 4.7% number is so low regarding Black reporters in locker rooms, why not ask for a more diverse media pool to ensure we’re viewed more objectively?

It’s a protection of our families; the innocence of our children, and just because we make a lot of money, should our moments of error be known to the world and potentially become reasons legacies are diminished? Reasons ownership would use to exact age limits, dress codes, social media restrictions and deflate salaries? Does that happen to every doctor, lawyer, grocery store clerk or trash man?

We think not.

Despite all the attention the NBA receives, LeBron James’ current salary is far less than Michael Jordan’s in 1998. How is that possible?

NBAPA president Chris Paul, vice president LeBron James and the rest of the executive committee took that L from the last CBA and learned a true business lesson. Your predecessor Billy Hunter gave the owners the hammer they needed to recoup potential billions through egalitarian salary restrictions. The fans don’t come to see owners running up and down the court dunking and shooting threes in Armani suits; they come to see us, so why should they receive the lion share of profits?

The answer manifests in the timing of you taking over for Hunter.

You came in our house and blew up the spot. You’ve changed the conversation, and now fans and media won’t see us so superficially.

Congratulations on your first year. We love you for your straight forward gift of intellectual soul.

The question is, will your strengths be spun critically so yet another teaching moment is lost and hidden within the elite corners of capitalism, or will fans get to see what truly encompasses what makes up the rhythm developing from that day one of picking up the basketball on the way to soul rock soul.

If so, and the players lose even more in the next CBA despite the inevitable windfall of cash and global popularity, can we elope?


8 Responses to “A Love Letter to NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts”

  1. Cel says:

    well done! Really an excellent piece Michael.

  2. Mo says:

    Interesting read; however, what exactly is your point? Because she is African American she Suppose to cater/serve only African Americans? Just like some thought just because you are African American, you were suppose to vote for Obama?

  3. The words are before you to read, so if you don’t get it, or choose not to, that’s not my problem. Thanks for reading.

  4. Mo says:

    Hmmmmm.. kinda harsh – your response; don’t you think? Maybe I didn’t interpret the point you wanted me to… Ten people can read the same piece and come out with 10 different takes..

    Don’t be so sensitive….. It is an interesting read…

  5. Carl Cort says:

    She’s a nice story. She’s seems like a smart lady and she seems very accomplished. I’m glad she has a plum job after her many years of selfless public service.

    However, it’s not up to her whether the union gets all the things you want them to get in the next CBA, it’s up to the rank & file. Just like it wasn’t Billy Hunter’s fault that the union signed this current joke of a CBA. It was the players’ fault. You think Billy Hunter didn’t beg the players to strike? You think Billy Hunter didn’t know this current CBA was a ripoff? It was the players who wanted it. It was the players who signed it. For whatever reason, it was the players who decided that they didn’t want to strike so they could get a better deal.

    If the players had any guts they would strike on opening day this year until the league agreed to rip up the current CBA and renegotiate a better one. Please, someone tell me why they won’t do that?

  6. No dispute there with me. I’d counter that Michele isn’t as cozy with ownership as the previous admin, so her interests because of her background and service will be more grounded in protecting player interest.

  7. mapoui says:

    I was immediately impressed by Roberts from the start. I might have been a tad too impressed but my head is on properly now relative to her.

    what she said that impressed was how she looked at the players share of the pie. she seemed quite sincere when she said the players must get their fair share.

    but of course she must not get ahead of her rank and file. that could happen easily given the impression I get of Roberts. when guys are getting unheard of millions its hard to strike even if there are double and treble unheard millions yet to get and they are in fact being ripped off.

    and I don’t know where regular NBA players come from socially, but I would imagine that such as Grant Hill represented a vanishing % of those who came/come from money , grew up in wealth and went to the best universities and did well academically.

    I imagine that ordinary ball players new to wealth, with a huge, extended family behind then with little, would want to impact that home situation positively immediately and continually. they would not be disposed to strike action and union militancy.

    yet the issues in basketball must be addressed and the players interest must be basic in guiding all change and reform