Nearly half the time has passed since former NBA commissioner David Stern said in 2009 that it was “a good possibility” that within a decade, women might play in the league Stern once ran.
While that still may not happen any time soon — if ever — the NBA remains on the forefront as the preeminent groundbreaking league for women in other areas.
It’s been several decades since the heyday of women’s professional baseball, and while hockey now has the six-team, four-on-four Women’s Hockey Association and women’s pro soccer is flourishing, no women’s league in North America receives as much attention as the NBA-backed WNBA, which is only a couple of years away from reaching the 20th anniversary since its founding.
Women have tried to break through on various levels in other men’s sports leagues, but not with the success they’ve enjoyed in the NBA — especially now, with Monday’s announcement of prominent Washington trial attorney Michele Roberts becoming the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
Two years ago, six-time national judo champion Shannon Eastin got her big break in trying to become the first female NFL referee, as she officiated her first preseason game in 2012, and her initial regular season game a month later. And now Sarah Thomas is attempting to follow in those footsteps where Eastin left off.
In the late 1980s, Pam Postema came close to umpiring regular season Major League Baseball, and Ria Cortesio got as far as calling Double-A ball and an MLB exhibition game in 2007.
But neither them, Eastin nor Thomas ever got the call the way one female NBA referee did — Violet Palmer, who has since become a regular part of the NBA’s full-time referee rotation after officiating her first regular season game during an NBA season opener back in 1997 (Dee Kantner was also signed to referee at that time, but her career didn’t take the same path as Palmer’s).
With hundreds of NBA games now on her resume, Palmer will forever hold the distinctions of being the first woman to officiate in the highest competitive tier of a major sport in the United States and (as of this past February) being the first woman to referee an All-Star Game in any of the four major U.S. sports.
Trailblazing in another NBA area, Natalie Nakase, a former three-year starter for the UCLA Bruins women’s basketball team, worked her way toward becoming the Los Angeles Clippers’ assistant video coordinator during the team’s summer league in July.
Not only should it be noted that well-known head coaches Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel and Mike Brown began their coaching careers similarly (each as video interns), but by holding her position with Los Angeles, Nakase became the first female assistant coach of any kind in NBA history during the same month Roberts was appointed to her own lofty position.
Helping the NBA make history for women in its momentous way yet, Roberts became the first woman to lead the union of a major men’s North American sports league.
As with the establishment of the WNBA and more so, the integrating Palmer as a regular referee, choosing Roberts was a bold move for a league which embraces the circumventing of traditional norms.
Although she received all but four of the 36 votes cast, Roberts’ selection was met with some controversy.
Washington Wizards teammates Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden left the vote early, upset that the process was rushed in selecting a new union chief who lacks a basketball background. Ex-player Jerry Stackhouse, who had designs on attaining Roberts’ position himself, was forced to angrily depart the meeting before the vote was taken.
And some of the NBA’s most prominent agents sought unsuccessfully to delay the vote.
But the league pressed on.
In the end, the often forward-thinking NBA yet again stood on the leading edge of history in a way that no league of its kind ever has — to the sheer delight of the vast majority in attendance, including Clippers star point guard and union president Chris Paul, who strongly advocated on Roberts’ behalf.
Like Paul, many others view Roberts’ biggest perceived weakness — not being involved with basketball before — as a strength, especially as the league enters an important time, with a new television deal and a possible significant salary cap increase on the horizon in 2016, followed by the potential for players to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement (which could lead to a lockout) a year later.
“My clients are going to tell me where we’re going, and I’m going to make sure we get there,” Roberts told USA Today reporter Sam Amick, with a refreshingly inclusive tone that resonated well with most voters.
Roberts’ style is already a sharp departure from the way the union was run in the past, under her predecessor, Billy Hunter, who would allow the league’s top players to dictate what they wanted for the rest of the league.
That notion will change going forward, as Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson noted of Roberts, “I liked her idea of team implementing, understanding that it’s not one person. And I think our new direction, we understand that players kind of have to be at the top of the food chain and we’re going to work collectively to shore things up.”
Although Roberts is breaking new ground as a female union head for a league like the NBA, that fact hardly mattered in the reasoning behind her selection.
Like Paul said, “On behalf of our players, it shows how open minded our players are. With any of the candidates it wasn’t about race, gender, anything, it was who is going to be the best person in that position.”
Despite being previously uninvolved in NBA affairs, Roberts has a very good understanding of the union’s prior history and where the organization needs to go henceforth as it becomes shaped by the myriad of fresh ideas that Roberts intends to bring to the negotiating table.
“They’ve got their union back,” Roberts said of the players. “And I’m going to make sure that they are empowered to take their union exactly where they want their union to go… we are going to have a team, a very strong team, what I call a team of gladiators… it’s a new day.”
That it is.
Not only for the NBPA, but perhaps moving forward for more women in sports, now that Roberts has allowed the NBA to again take the lead on breaking through another historic barrier.