When Michele Roberts, a white-collar defense attorney, was named the leader of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) in July, she became the first female executive director of any major men’s professional sports union in the country. It was a significant achievement, but she still faced a daunting challenge: remaking an organization that had fallen into disrepair.
After years of mismanagement—including some questionable financial dealings on the part of Roberts’s predecessor, Billy Hunter, who also caved on a deal that dramatically reduced members’ collective bargaining power—the players no longer had faith in their union. When Roberts arrived, she was appalled. “It was like a mom-and- pop shop,” she says. “That’s how pathetic this place has been.
To get the job, Roberts had to interview with more than 100 NBA players, and it was while talking to them that she realized the similarities between the 450-member union and the Fortune 500 companies she’d been representing. Just like running a corporation, she says, running a union is about “making deliberate decisions that are going to enhance the value of the entity for its members.”
To run a good company, you need good people. As soon as she got the job, Roberts set about hiring some to fill the positions of CFO, COO, CTO, general counsel, and head of human resources—none of which had existed under Hunter. “It’s like a startup,” Roberts says. “We needed a management team that could conduct the business of the union.”
The NBPA is completing its first-ever financial audit and rebuilding its relationship with the NBA, as well as with cable companies and others. It will be another two years before the current collective bargaining agreement expires, but Roberts has already taken NBA commissioner Adam Silver to task over what she considers to be unfair caps on players’ salaries. “I would not do what my predecessor has done, and that is ever forget that I work for the union and not the other way around,” she says. “I would never disrespect that relationship.”