NBPA executive director Michele Roberts on player-referee relations, the rash of injuries and watching ‘Black Panther’ with the players
‘The fact that there has been a turnover in the referee ranks has been a significant factor’
WEST HOLLYWOOD, California — The security outside of this posh boutique hotel might be better than it is at Los Angeles International Airport. Inside is the National Basketball Players Association’s private refuge called “One Court” where close to 100 players are expected to convene during NBA All-Star Weekend. The winter meeting will take place in a ballroom Friday, and there will also be private parties in the penthouse, a gifting suite and a rooftop pool with a cabana overlooking Los Angeles. There also will be two showings of Black Panther starting on Thursday night. Despite being 11 miles away from Staples Center, the home of the NBA All-Star Game, several All-Stars are expected to stay here rather than staying downtown.
Before an already busy weekend got busier, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts sat down with The Undefeated at the hotel to talk about the drama between her players and the referees, injuries, the changing views on marijuana, the Blake Griffin trade and more.
What is ‘One Court’ and why is it important to your players?
What we always wanted to do is create an environment where the focus was on the players and frankly not the fans and not the league and not the sponsors. Just the players. A place that is sort of a sanctuary for players. This is a very hectic time for not only the All-Stars but the non-All-Stars.
All-Star, and I’m not being critical, has turned into such a commercial event. And to an extent, it’s a time for the players to relax and enjoy themselves. It’s harder and harder to do that with all the sponsorship meetings going on. What we thought about was that we wanted to have a place where the players can come that belongs to them. While they may be engaged in other activities throughout the weekend, this is one place, ‘One Court,’ where they can come and let their hair down.
And again, the focus being on the players. And it’s also a way for guys being able to bond. You may be a Laker. You may be a Clipper. But we are with the NBPA so we are one team. This is our ‘One Court.’ Corny, but that’s basic thinking.
What are you hoping they are able to do while they are here?
This is when they’re not working. Every other minute and hour of the day, they’re working. What we wanted for them to see was a place they could relax and bring family members that we allow to come to One Court. Wives, children, girlfriends are welcome here. And they are not being asked to do anything other than to relax and enjoy themselves. They’re not being asked to speak to anyone. They don’t have to worry about fans or anyone else interfering with their time.
And then we try to bring things to them that might interest them, like showing new movies. Like we did Barbershop 3 one year, and now we are showing Black Panther. Things that may entertain them. Then we have a tech talk of sorts that will happen. I think [Washington Wizards forward] Trevor Booker is doing something here. A couple players are going to talk about non-basketball activities that appeal to them.
We started it with Dwyane Wade back in Toronto  who had a very well-attended seminar on marketing, creating your brand and protecting your brand. Just a place where they don’t have to play. And that means they don’t have to work. And to the extent that they would like to bond with each other, here is an environment they could do that.
Can you talk about the mindset of being at a location close enough but far enough from the heart of NBA All-Star Weekend?
Fans will find out in 20 minutes where they are. So, by [Friday], we will have fans on the perimeter trying to see the players. And if we are three blocks away from the host hotel, it would take 12 seconds for them to come and camp out, so we wanted to have something with distance so there really would be a feel of this being a place for the players.
At the same time, we don’t want it to be so inconvenient that they can’t have access to any parties, meetings, meals and even fans if they so choose to do that. We did deliberately avoid something really close to the league’s activities, but not so far away they couldn’t enjoy that.
Your winter meeting is Friday. Can you share what is on the agenda?
Not much. It will be a discussion of some of the issues that have been in the news. There has been a lot of buzz from the start of the year about medical marijuana. A lot of players are interested in knowing what that is all about, so we will have some conversations about that. [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] has revisited the issue on one-and-done, but there are some conversations we will have with the league about that. I wanted to get some input from players about that.
We did launch our new for-profit component, so there will be an update on that whole venture. And obviously, there have been some issues on officiating of late of concern to the league, the officials and most importantly the players. It’s an opportunity for me to hear from them en masse. And it’s an opportunity for them to talk to each other about these issues. Will a decision be made? Maybe none. But we at least want to engage in a conversation about what is going on.
What do you hope to gain from the meeting with the players and the referees after problems with them not seeing eye to eye this season? (The private meeting will take place with a ‘diverse group’ of three players, three referees and possibly a moderator. Roberts said she is not opposed to more players or referees being in attendance as long as it is ‘orderly.’)
The fact that there has been a turnover in the referee ranks has been a significant factor. … If there are growing pains and a learning curve you are trying to master, it’s not surprising that there would be some need to become accustomed to the game. Our game has gotten much faster. [Refereeing] is a tough job. I don’t frankly know how they make the calls that they make. It’s a tough job.
There are two things. I am told that the actual number of techs are not significantly higher than previous seasons. I don’t feel that. I was surprised to hear that. I am going to look to see if that is accurate because the sense that I have, and I think most people have, is that there is something more going on. But I’m also trying to figure out what are refs trying to do and what are they trained to do to de-escalate what is always going to be a tense situation.
This game is not only fast-moving, but these men are competitive or possibly even more competitive than any players in the history of the game. They want to be friends off the court, but they want to take each other’s heads off on the court. They’re very competitive. You can’t assume you’re refereeing or officiating a high school game. This is basketball on the highest level played by the best players on the planet who are competitive. A missed call, a bad call or no call, no matter if the official is right or wrong, there is going to be reaction to that.
What has to happen is these officials are going to have to know how to deal with that as opposed to ignoring the player. How many times have you seen an official and a player after a bad call or missed call having a conversation? No one seems threatened by it. But it’s not as tolerated by my view or certainly the players’ view as there was before. There is a school of thought that there is no time for that in the game.
To continue to walk away, is that something we are teaching the referees to do? Are the refs intimidated by the players where they do think it is in their best interest and physical safety to walk away? I don’t know. So what I want to understand and the players to understand, and they do think that it has changed and that it is generational. ‘Why can’t we have a 12-second conversation? Why do you walk away from me?’
I have officials where my players have said they told them to ‘shut up, I’m not having that right now.’ Maybe the official is right. I have to concentrate on the next play. But whether it is right or wrong, that doesn’t matter. This environment has to be managed. You’re not there just to call strikes and fouls. You are there to manage a game. And I’m not as satisfied as I should be with whatever the officials are doing to prepare themselves for this process.
The point is to have an equal number of officials and players involved in the conversation. I’m not excluding any other officials from being in the room or any other players. But everyone has to understand that the purpose is to keep things kind of orderly. They will have their representatives and our representatives having a conversation with an opportunity for anyone else that is there to ask a question and make a point, but not to dominate the discussion.
Hopefully, this is the beginning of some decent dialogue. But they’re ready to talk about what they think the problems are. We are ready to tell them what we think the problems are. And then we can see if we have a common ground or identify a common problem that either we can address internally or maybe has to be brought to the league to offer some perspective.
How do you feel about the state of the NBA at the moment?
Financially, the game is growing. The BRI [basketball-related income] is on the rise. I don’t feel happy about the problems that football is having. But I’m happy that we don’t have them. I always believe this, and it’s continued to be true, that basketball players are continuing to enjoy the social media world with the greatest following among fans than in other sports. Our guys are significantly seen as role models or people that fans want to hear about, talk about, learn about and be next to.
Their popularity is continuing to grow. I think the game is in a great place after we came out of CBA negotiations. The one thing I will say as a lawyer is that I have never been of the view that any document is static. We did the CBA. We got through it without a lockout or a strike. That’s all good. But I was of the view, and I’m glad to hear that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] is as well, that we can continue to talk. There are some things that we wanted to see improve a bit. The same thing on their side.
So we’re continuing to talk. I wouldn’t say they’re full-throated negotiations, but conversations. We’re at a place where we can have decent dialogue. That is good for our game too.
What do you think about the strong voice NBA players seem to have on social issues? Do you have influence on that?
They were famous for doing the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts in recent years. There was [LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade] speaking at the  ESPYs. I saw it completely for the first time when everybody else did. That was completely organic from the players. Every tweet, every message sent out by players in social media was done without any guidance from the NBPA. So early on, I resolved that these guys knew how to handle themselves and not to be banished that way.
The night of that ESPYs someone called me and said, ‘Watch the ESPYs.’ I said, ‘No, because I don’t watch award shows.’ ‘Well, watch it tonight.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And I of course thought, Is this going to be a problem? And the show opened and I saw the four brothas and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t know about it. And that is just the way they roll.
Those are NBA players. Those are the guys that I work for. They are independent thinkers. They’re smart, and they know how to manage their individual brands. They know how to manage a message. I couldn’t have come up with a better idea than they did.
When [Colin] Kaepernick happened, I knew our guys would be sympathetic to what he was trying to promote. But I never thought that they would imitate it because they don’t imitate. They create. So, taking a knee, I don’t have a problem with one of the football players following one of his brothers. But it never occurred to me that basketball players would do the same thing. And they didn’t do that.
They were full-throated in their support of Kap. They have done things in their communities and on social media to show their support for Kap. But it is not in them to do what the football players did, and I knew that they wouldn’t. There may have been some concerns from the league side about what would happen [during the national anthem this season]. And we talked about it. My position always what we will do as the NBPA, and the league agreed, is to provide any support that they wanted to solicit from us. But it was never my position that we were going to tell the players what they should and should not do.
You weren’t nervous at all when the preseason approached and the national anthem was played at NBA games?
Nope, not for one second, because I know these guys. I did let the word get out that if there is anything that you want to do and you think we can be a sounding board, let me know. I know the guys were having players-only meetings. Most of them decided that if they were going to do anything they were going to do it as a team. I knew those conversations were happening, and I just let them know that the NBPA was going to support them.
There is a rule that says they have to stand during the national anthem. I said, ‘Yes, that’s a rule. But tell me what you want to do?’ I didn’t say, ‘Now you know there is a rule. Don’t you do anything.’ I confirmed it because they were reading about it. I also confirmed that if they took any position that we thought was averse to the rule we would defend it.
I thought about inviting Kaepernick to address the players. We might do that. Our guys don’t need any instruction in that space. Do you think LeBron needs Kap or anyone to tell him about these issues?’ They have done so well on their own that I have just to stay out of their way.
I am so proud of them. I really am. Before [President Donald] Trump withdrew his invitation [to the White House to the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors], I knew my guys weren’t going. I’m so proud of them. I really am. There is pride to be had in the football players as well. But I am really proud of our guys. They are phenomenal. They are extraordinary.
What are your thoughts on the possibility of the use of medical marijuana in the NBA?
The attorney general calls it a gateway drug. He says he doesn’t care what states are doing to legalize it. He’s going to encourage his states to uphold the law. The question that the [NBA] had to address, in my view, is why are we criminalizing what is not criminal? Obviously, you can’t walk on the court drunk. But you can drink.
We are still looking into [medical marijuana]. Despite what the attorney general is doing, the movement is toward legalization. That is one of the discussions we are continuing to have.
Are you guys studying the use of medical marijuana on athletes?
I don’t want to say studying it. We are using independent research. I have certainly taken a look at what the current scientists are saying about this. And we are looking to have conversations with the league. The thought is that we don’t have the same pain management issues as football does. It is true because their injuries are much more significant. But we do have pain issues.
I go to meetings, and I’ve gotten used to it now, but eight of the guys will come into the meetings wearing ice on their knees. I couldn’t stand that for 12 seconds. But they need to do that to be able to walk. Joint issues. Running up and down the court. The cardiovascular nature of the game. Jumping. Pain is an issue in the game. It’s a matter of allowing guys to use what science to me is suggesting is effective.
Any big news expected at the winter meeting on Friday?
We have a whole new subsidiary, and it’s called NBPA Inc. And [Friday] we will launch the official name, ‘Think 450.’ The whole point was to emphasize these are group licensing rights. We have 450 members. And what we wanted to communicate to our potential sponsors is you can and should think about the entirety of our membership when you consider and also do secure the rights to market their likenesses.
In the end — and I don’t mean to sound critical, but I will because I am — we don’t play favorites when it comes to promoting any of our members. We appreciate that there are members that are able to do that on their own. We don’t question that. But 450 men comprise of our union. When we think about marketing rights, we think about the entirety of our membership, and so therefore we decided to call it Think 450. It made sense.
What does it mean for the players to own their group licensing again?
It’s something that was only a coincidence of the agreement expiring at the same time the [collective bargaining agreement] did because group licensing is not something we collectively bargained. They belong to us. We are not required to talk to anybody about how we market those rights. It was a voluntary relationship between the NBPA and the league to allow them to manage those rights. And so the decision to take them back was a decision we could make and did make on our own.
We didn’t have to get permission. We didn’t have to negotiate. The league obviously wanted to continue to manage it. But it was time for us to be concerned about what impact it might have had on the market, perhaps. But in any event, it wasn’t the subject of bargaining to the extent where anyone thought it was. We were very clear that it wasn’t something we were open to discussion about because it belongs to the players.
I don’t even want to argue if they’re being marketed to their full potential. It’s not important to me if they were or not. I know we will market them to their full potential because this is a revenue-generating device that has nothing to do with the teams or the league. This is what the players can do on their own to maximize the amount of money they can make playing the game of basketball. We still get our share of basketball-related income pursuant to the CBA. But this is the one area where the players can and should have complete control of. And then there is no question about whether the rights are being marketed to their full potential.
We have to manage how we financially exploit these rights. There is no excuse for all our players to exercise their rights the same that all football players do. The NFLPA, I admire that union. And one of the things that I admire is the success they’ve had in marketing their image and brand with the players. If we are locked out ever again, it will never be the case anymore that we’d be dependent upon the legal teams for all of the revenue our teams receive.
This is one of several revenue sources that we hope to identify. We hope to allow for greater independence. And also, because the brand of being a basketball player is only valuable to an individual player while you are playing. At some point, all of them are going to be retired and they will not be able to make money from basketball. We’re always mindful of the shelf life of our players, and we are always mindful of getting as much money as we can into these men’s pockets while they are playing.
Is there any rhyme or reason to all the injuries in the NBA this season, or is it just coincidental?
I need to see the numbers. It seems and feels like there are more injuries. And if that is the case, I don’t know why. We need to take a look at what type of conditioning is being offered to the players. I don’t think it is because of the shortened preseason. I think those guys go into the preseason in pretty good shape.
In fact, I think that had no impact at all. The trade-off was an effort to have fewer back-to-backs, and fewer three-out-of-four-days games was worth the shortened season. I know others disagree, but I don’t buy into the notion that we need to buy into a full preseason. I don’t know why there are more injuries. I just think the game is just faster. If think if there is a significant difference in the amount of injuries, it’s more of a culprit thing.
What do you think about Stephen Curry and the Warriors stepping up in their words about the White House and ultimately not visiting as champions?
I couldn’t be prouder of them. I was not one that said we turned a significant corner when [President Barack] Obama was elected. I thought it was a significant achievement. I feel badly because I had said before, ‘There was no chance in hell that a black man would be president.’ I couldn’t be more pleased to be wrong. Having said that, I still think there is much to do. I would have never thought that we would have pivoted the way that we have.
Some may say that nothing changed. It was just cloaked in darkness. What I feel for these guys is I suspect that they, having had a president like Obama in the White House for eight years, have a [positive] perception of this country that has been shattered. What I hope and pray that they don’t do is become [stagnant] and feel we have taken two steps backward [under Trump]. Some people in this country have. I hope it gives them more resolve.
But I can’t imagine having some young kids who the only president they knew [previously] was a black man. How they are managing to understand this new president is beyond me. But I love the fact that these guys are using their platform to say, ‘We don’t condone this; therefore, we are not going to your White House because I don’t appreciate being offended by the way you treat members of my community.’ I would have been frankly surprised and disappointed had they gone to the White House. I’m delighted.
How did you take the Los Angeles Clippers signing Blake Griffin to a five-year deal last offseason and then trading him to the Detroit Pistons recently?
I was stunned. He got that big contract, so I was like, ‘The Clippers are going to build around him.’ Someone mentioned to me that they were considering trading him. I was like, ‘Boy, is that stupid,’ only because they made the decision on how they wanted to build the team. I was stunned. Not as stunned as Blake. But I was stunned.
With Griffin in mind, do you think NBA players, like Kevin Durant, shouldn’t be as criticized when they decide to depart to another team?
Absolutely. LeBron said it absolutely correctly. For someone of Blake’s character to find out on Twitter is crazy. One of the things we tried to address in the CBA, and it didn’t work out, was at least give the men the dignity of knowing from you, the GM, as opposed to knowing from some reporter, ‘How do you feel about being traded?’
It will happen again. The next time someone starts complaining about a player’s decision to re-locate to one team, I will be a lot more vocal in saying why do you see a difference in what a player can do and what a GM and owner can do? I don’t like to play the race card because, frankly, it isn’t all that useful sometimes. But it’s beginning to sound a lot like that. Of course, they want to improve a team. But a player can’t improve his life?
I had no problems with what Durant was doing. I wanted Durant to go to the [Washington] Wizards because I spent 30 years in D.C. I completely endorsed his decision to go to Golden State. He can do whatever he wants to.
Are you going to watch Black Panther with the players?
Can you think of anything more fun than watching Black Panther with the players? You damn right I am. Nothing excites me about seeing the movie because I’m not into [science fiction]. But I told my staff that I thought it was about the Black Panther Party. I said, ‘That’s really cool. They’re progressive. They are excited about this movie.’
My staff started laughing at me because I don’t do Marvel movies. But I know they’re excited about it. I just like being in their company. I think it would be a hoot to be in the same audience with the players watching this thing. Now that I know more about the movie, I think it will be kind of fun.
What do you think about the job that you’ve done?
I would like to stay that I have done a great job. The truth of the matter is I have a great team, including [Chrysa Chin], the executive committee and the board. Collectively, we have done a spectacular job. I am really proud of what we’ve done. I am really proud of what we are going to be doing going forward.
The only thing that limits our ability to do better is our imagination. These players have empowered the [NBPA] team to bring ideas and suggestions and alternatives to them. The only caveat is it has to be in the best interest of the players.
Are you paying attention to the television ratings?
Yes. The one thing that I will say Adam [Silver] and I have in common is I want this game to grow and this pie to grow. The bigger the pie, the bigger the slice. Yeah I’m watching the ratings.
Word on the street is that the criticism of the first-ever NBA All-Star team selection (Team LeBron and Team Steph) being private is a sore subject with you. True?
I don’t know what the big brouhaha was. Ultimately, people wanted to see the face of the guy who was picked last. That may be fun television, but why? Look, we got a new format. If the players and the NBA want to have a [televised] draft later, fine. I was taken aback by the amount of attention.
I think the issue was totally media-generated. You and your colleagues, and I don’t fault you, were creating an issue that I don’t think the fans were as interested in.