Trial lawyer Michele Roberts became the first woman to lead a major North American pro sports union early Tuesday morning when the National Basketball Players Associated elected her as its new executive director. TNT’s David Aldridge was the first to report the news (Twitter link). Roberts captured 32 of a possible 36 votes among player representatives from each of the league’s 30 teams and the union’s executive committee, easily surpassing the required two-thirds majority in spite of reports detailing dissension before the vote.
“Let’s be clear: I’m sure there were people that noticed I was a girl,” Roberts said to reporters, including Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, following the 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.”
Roberts, a member of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has won plaudits as a “talented and ruthless” litigator, Berger writes. She beat out Mavs CEO Terdema Ussery and tech industry CEO Dean Garfield, the other two finalists for the job that’s remained vacant since the union ousted longtime executive director Billy Hunter at the All-Star Game in 2013.
“It shows how open-minded our players are,” union president Chris Paul said, as Berger notes. “With any of the candidates, it wasn’t about race or gender. It was about who was going to be the best person in that position. From day one in interviews, she tackled every question head first. … There were tough questions she was faced with. She didn’t back away from them. She didn’t shy away from them. She told us her story, and it really sat well with us.”
Roberts first emerged as one of two finalists for the post in February, but the union decided soon after to renew its search. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson teamed with the NBPA to form a search committee that interviewed more than 70 candidates, but Johnson left the process amid disagreement with the union’s executive committee in the days leading up to the vote. Johnson’s departure seemed to reopen the door to the skepticism and discord that had marked much of the union’s slow movement toward a hire. Agents and players alike called for yet another delay in the process. A player told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports (Twitter link) that he wanted more time to consider the finalists after they each made presentations Monday night to the attendees, who were roughly 120 in number, as Berger writes. That’s in contrast to the 35 who were in attendance when Hunter was deposed, Berger also points out.
Former union executive committee member Jerry Stackhouse was particularly critical. He believed current executive committee members, who identified Roberts as a candidate before Johnson’s involvement, were attempting to “save face” by supporting her candidacy, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick (Twitter links). Stackhouse attended the meeting, but was eventually forced to leave because he’s no longer an NBA player, Amick notes (Twitter link).
Paul and the executive committee were indeed the prime movers behind the choice of Roberts, sources told Wojnarowski (Twitter link). Ultimately, Roberts’ track record as a litigator, unblemished character, and her vision for change won over the rest of the union’s voting members, as Wojnarowski, in a full story, and Berger report. The close ties between league management and Ussery, whom former commissioner David Stern considers a friend, scuttled his chances, Jared Dudley told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com (Twitter link).