What the hell kind of high-profile union boss tells the media to either ask a question or get the fuck out? What sort of leader is Michele Roberts, stepping all over the people who cover her sport for a living over something as small and trivial as a media scrum? The answer: the best kind. Naturally, not everyone really agrees with this. Consider this more proof.
Let's start here: it's Michele Roberts' job to protect, and advocate on behalf of, NBA players. The simplest way of understanding her job is as a necessary oppositional force to the interests of owners, who—in a crudely black-and-white depiction that is nonetheless perhaps somewhat useful (and, for that matter, arguably true)—will generally want to screw over the players union as much as possible, in the pursuit of an ever-larger share of profits. It has always been the job of a good (that is, non-NFL) union boss to push back as hard as possible against the will of ownership. It is perhaps even more essential union bosses be capable of doing this now, in an era of increasingly militant management. This is just how this all works.
So Michele Roberts caused some commotion this winter when, in an interview with ESPN The Magazine, she went ahead and put words to what has long been a sort of unspoken truth of labor relations, particularly with respect to American professional sports: owners are basically unnecessary to the product and therefore wholly replaceable, if not disposable altogether. At a basic level, it is just this simple: no one shows up to watch the owners, and the money generated by the spectacle is more than sufficient to pay for its necessary infrastructure.
Owners, by this logic, are part of a giant rentier apparatus that has sprung up around the game and its players, all of which has as its aim the making of money off of a game to which that apparatus does not meaningfully contribute. The counterpoint to this is Donald Sterling's Master Shake-voiced "who makes the games?" whinging, and that is honestly just not much of a counterpoint.
To the extent that the enormous and enormously powerful structures and entities making incredible money off of sports are, in fact, non-essential to the inherent spectacle of a public competition between world-class athletes—that is, to a great extent—the sports media is very obviously a part of that same apparatus. For all the other variously self-serving justifications for its existence, the fact remains that the sports media only showed up in the first place because the thing that was happening was drawing a crowd.
And that's fine! That people are willing to buy news and watch recaps of events that those same people recently watched in real time is a reflection of the enormous popular interest in sports. Still, as the middle-man in that exchange, the sports media serves the interests of fans far more than those of the players. In other words, the pre-existing popularity of sports makes the role of the media essential to the consumer. The media isn't talking us into liking sports, or re-convincing us afresh every morning. They're delivering what we like, in response to evident interest.So, under many-if-not-most circumstances, the sports media is non-essential, but never more so than when they're lurking in the players' locker room, waiting to do nothing more than hold a microphone in front of a player's face and hope the player says something interesting—in response to what are, on balance, questions that are not interesting by design—about a game everyone just got finished watching with their own eyes.
Even then, if that's all there was to it—an intrusive but otherwise harmless crowd of goobers doing largely pointless work to the general discomfort of the players, who are the only actors of any actual value to the whole big business—you could make a credible case that Roberts maybe ought to take a pass on this topic and find a bigger, better, more urgently contested hill upon which to die. Certainly the sports media, by this way of thinking of them, are far less dangerous in their non-essentiality than the owners, which not coincidentally is a group with which Roberts and her organization will be butting heads pretty much around the clock until she quits her job or there's some sort of extinction-level event, whichever comes first.
But things aren't so simple. Maybe it's always been this way, maybe it's a recent development, but one way or another, whether by the influence of fantasy sports or the fun intellectual accessibility of NBA transactions, media and fans tend to invest themselves quite a bit in the assembly mechanics of NBA rosters, and this is virtually always done from a front-office perspective. Popular writers and NBA "insiders" like Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski have made a living out of turning the intricate and consumable details of NBA roster management into clean, easily accessible, and (importantly) year-round fodder for hoops junkies.
This works out fairly well for all involved, although a less appealing knock-on effect is that, by coldly treating players as assets and assessing their fit—within the increasingly faceless and mathematized mechanics of a basketball team and within the labyrinthine structure of an NBA transaction—the players' interests are, largely, relegated to an afterthought. Did the Wizards get good value in their trade for Ramon Sessions? How will he fit into their anemic offense? Meanwhile, Sessions is packing up his entire life and moving practically as far as a person can move inside the contiguous United States, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., with no say in the matter whatsoever.
It may not seem like it, but when members of the media start and stop with an assessment of the value that (human) asset represents to the two teams who transacted him, they are training fans to think of the players as mere pieces in the whole of the NBA machine, rather than its foundation and only essential participants. And that's not necessarily the sports media doing a bad job, nor are they necessarily encouraging behavior among fans that could be called "bad." But in the context of a decades old and ongoing battle between the NBA's labor force and a class of parasitic owners over the money generated from the sport, the sports media is participating, even accidentally, in the devaluing of the NBA Players Association's membership. This is what makes Michele Roberts' aggressive stance absolutely vital. Relative to her priorities as the boss of the NBPA, the media's limited access is being used in ways that are almost uniformly negative.
Just some friends, having a talk about basketball. It's normal and very good. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
This is not to say that Michele Roberts' beef with the media scrum comes down to what-if trade proposal columns and draft grades. But what's evident is that, at least in her appraisal, the NBA media's coverage, as a result of its granted access, is not generally accruing significantly to the benefit of her union and its members. Would she be so worried about invasions of privacy if she felt otherwise? Of course not. That's just sort of the situation we've created, where fantasy sports and ESPN's Trade Machine and the annual (and expanding) Festival of Trade Value Approximation join monthly Woj-Bombs in encouraging fans to think of players as interchangeable assets in an enterprise of their own creation.
The overall stance of the sports media treats the players as tools at the disposal of teams and, additionally, the media. The truth is that whatever portion of media coverage does wind up supporting the interests of players pales laughably in comparison to the gains made via the unfiltered exploits of the players themselves. This is a simple equation: the sports media, in its current form, is far less valuable to the players (and their union) than the players are to the sports media.
In this context, that this bunch of working stiffs in shirtsleeves sometimes stand around with no questions to ask while interrupting the players' privacy is the least of their transgressions. What we're seeing from athletes-from the good old days of Rasheed Wallace to Marshawn Lynch to Russell Westbrook and now even Kevin Durant—is explicit recognition of the fact that the sports media is misusing its access in ways big and small, from lingering in their locker room to asking stupid questions (if actual questions are asked at all) to holding grudges to instigating controversy to undermining their subjects' livelihood.
Michele Roberts is a sharp person, and she's got a big job. Doing the whole job of advocating for the players means clearly recognizing who is and isn't serving their interests, and interceding where necessary. In this respect, her comments haven't misunderstood or misrepresented anything. She wants to protect the players from a sports media that she sees as generally not advancing the interests of her union. That much is obvious. More to the point, that's her job.