The Rise of Michele Roberts, New Head of the NBA Players' Union

Michele Roberts Photograph by Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times via Redux

In one of the most intriguing recent developments in the sports industry, the National Basketball Players Association has named Washington attorney Michele Roberts as its new director. Roberts, the first woman to lead a major U.S. professional sports union, reportedly beat out scores of other candidates even though she has no background in labor relations or professional athletics. “Her closest tie to basketball,” according to the New York Times, “was a Washington Wizards season-ticket package she shared with friends.”

Not that she lacks for impressive credentials. Roberts’ career represents a triumph of talent, grit, and idiosyncratic personal style. During a pitch to a Las Vegas ballroom full of very tall male athletes, she confronted the obvious question of why a woman deserved to speak for NBA players. “My past,” she said, according to the Times, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” Perhaps out of concern that they might end up in Roberts’ boneyard, the NBA players overwhelmingly chose her as their leader.

Roberts’ rise reminded me of an earlier moment of transition in her career—almost two decades ago—when I watched her not-altogether-smooth courtroom performance on behalf of a wealthy employer being sued for racial discrimination. I wrote a book about the case called The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America, and I’ll come back to Roberts’ role in it shortly. First, a bit of her personal history.

An African-American, Roberts grew up in a low-income housing project in the Bronx, N.Y. She has charged across racial and gender lines her whole life, making her way from public schools in New York to a fancy prep school and on to the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a law degree in 1980. She earned a stellar reputation at the prestigious Public Defender Service in Washington, where she represented clients, mostly black men, accused of murder, drug trafficking, and other serious offenses.

Although she prided herself as an advocate for underdogs, Roberts eventually migrated to the more lucrative field of civil litigation and landed a partnership in the D.C. office of New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Her bio on the firm’s website describes her as having tried more than 100 cases to jury verdicts in fields as diverse as product liability, racketeering, securities, and job discrimination. Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree is quoted as saying of Roberts: “She becomes the 13th juror, capable of seeing the case as the jury sees it.”

In a notable early engagement in her civil-litigation career, however, Roberts lost, unable to persuade members of a mostly black Washington jury to see the case as she saw it. The 1996 trial concerned allegations that the Chicago-based corporate law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman had discriminated against an African-American attorney whose life story in some crucial regards resembled that of Roberts’ own.

Lawrence Mungin also grew up poor in a New York housing project. He excelled in the military and then graduated from college and law school at Harvard. After living by his mother’s credo of setting race aside and focusing on individual achievement, Mungin arrived at Katten Muchin expecting to rise to partnership. Instead, his career stalled, leading to bitterness and ultimately his discrimination suit.

Katten Muchin was represented by another predominantly white law firm but brought in Roberts to serve as front-person for the defense in federal court in Washington. In my book about the case, I noted the awkwardness Roberts felt about playing this role. To her credit, she acknowledged that Katten Muchin had hired her, at least in part, because of the firm’s assumption that a black lawyer with street cred would have a better shot at winning over a mostly black big-city jury. She also insisted, though, that she was fully qualified—which she was—and that she believed her client had been falsely accused.

Roberts had a tough assignment. Katten Muchin’s defense boiled down to: Yes, Mungin had been treated shabbily, but the firm treated all of its junior attorneys shabbily. Callousness was dispensed in a spirit of equal opportunity.

The jury didn’t buy it and awarded Mungin $2.5 million. Indignant, Katten Muchin displaced Roberts and the rest of its trial team and brought in fresh (white) appellate representation. A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. reversed Mungin’s victory, and he never saw a dime. A sad parable of the frustrations that accompany integration, the Mungin story offered a reminder that social progress does not proceed in a straight line.

The appellate reversal dashed the hopes of one promising young black lawyer and provided a measure of redemption to another, even though the vindicated Katten Muchin firm hadn’t trusted Roberts to argue before the appellate panel. Her obvious skill has fueled a phenomenal career. Now she’ll have a chance to do battle against the powerful (and mostly white) fraternity of NBA owners, a notoriously hard-nosed bunch. It’ll be a confrontation worth watching.

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