She Helped Put ‘Black Lives Matter’ on N.B.A. Courts

Here is another superb article from for The New York Times in which he shares his conversation with Michele Roberts. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

Credit: Mike Patton/National Basketball Players Association

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Michele Roberts grew up in the South Bronx and made her way to the pinnacle of the legal world before becoming the head of the players’ union.

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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.


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