Michele Roberts: 'I think Phil was deliberately trying to shame 'Melo out of the city'

Harvey Araton
The Vertical
Michele Roberts says there is a double standard regarding what team executives and players can say publicly. (AP)

The statement, it turns out, only scratched the surface. When Michele Roberts complained in a mid-April release about Phil Jackson’s “inappropriate comments” on Carmelo Anthony, she had much more to say about the Knicks president’s use of his bully pulpit against the franchise’s veteran star.

Much more to allege.

“I think Phil was deliberately trying to shame ‘Melo out of the city,” she told The Vertical.

Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said she had all but given up on waiting for the league to sanction Jackson – something that she “would have bet my paycheck on” after hearing of his comments two days after the conclusion of another wretched Knicks season.

She had immediately flashed back to September 2015, when Markieff Morris, then with the Suns, was fined $10,000 for tweeting, “My future is not in Phoenix,” after twin brother Marcus was dealt to Detroit. Commissioner Adam Silver’s office decided that was a “public statement detrimental to the NBA.” So when Jackson, speaking to New York’s beat reporters for the first time since September, said, among other things, that Anthony “would be better off somewhere else,” Roberts kept coming up with one answer when she asked herself what was the difference?

In terms of actionable speech considered detrimental to the game, there was none, beyond an apparent double standard for executives and players and, more perplexing, the league’s longtime habit of shrugging its figurative shoulders at the periodic behavioral transgressions committed under the Madison Square Garden circus tent pitched by its owner, James Dolan.

“I have players who are unhappy that this hasn’t been responded to by the league,” Roberts told The Vertical.

Anthony aside, that is the wider view, she said, “for when another GM gets it in his head that it’s OK to treat a player this way because Phil got away with it.”

And where does it lead? Where does it end? Jackson callously made a public piñata of Anthony because he wants him to waive the no-trade clause that he, of course, handed the perennial All-Star along with a five-year contract in 2014. Could Jackson or another team executive publicly degrade a veteran they want off the roster in order to make him retire? To accept a buyout? Would it be appropriate to fat-shame a player into losing weight?

“The comments do damage to the game because they devalue the player and makes the fans who buy tickets question the value of the investment,” Roberts said.

As a longtime trial lawyer and advocate of First Amendment rights, one of the first axiomatic sports concepts she grappled with upon taking the players association job in July 2014 – the same month that Jackson re-signed Anthony – was the limits on individual speech for the so-called good of the game.

Knicks president Phil Jackson used his bully pulpit in an attempt to get Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause. (AP)

“Our players understand that they can privately complain about how a team is managed but they cannot do it publicly without being subject to sanction,” she said. “But it has to work both ways. If Phil tells ‘Melo in private that being in New York is not a good fit for him, that’s his right. But these comments were made in public, and it’s very disturbing because Phil gave him the no-trade clause and he has to respect it. He’s got to allow a player to make a decision for any reason – to win a ring, for money, home life, whatever.”

It is entirely possible that Anthony has already decided, or is leaning in the direction of granting Jackson his wish, provided Jackson can place him with a team of his choosing. The Clippers, for instance, whose need for him, or any help, has only intensified with another first-round playoff exit.

Anthony has to know that with or without him, the Knicks aren’t likely to soon provide him a springtime playoff stage. Turning 33 later this month, his career clock is ticking. But that is also assuming he measures time, and achievement, in full-bore pursuit of the almighty ring.

But you don’t have to be of that conventional mindset or even a fan of Anthony’s game to acknowledge the NCAA title he carried Syracuse to as a freshman, the three Olympic gold medals, the 10 All-Star seasons that make him a certain Hall of Famer. How great are the odds that Anthony wins one if he lands with the Clippers? Surely he knows they improve if he calls Jackson’s bluff, says he won’t waive the no-trade clause and dares Jackson to release him so he can fit easily into the salary cap of any desirable team.

The decline in his game the last couple of years has been noticeable, but who says he can’t chase the ring as a less-expensive investment when his Knicks contract ends in 2019? He’ll be 35 then, the same age Joe Johnson is now, with the same tag Anthony has worn – isolation specialist – while emerging as the shot-making difference in the Jazz’s seven-game takedown of the Clippers.

And what if Anthony should decide that basketball results mean less to him than personal interests, and staying in New York in the wake of reported marital strife would benefit his relationship with his son? Would that be more of a self-inflicted crime against what others believe is the proper management of his career, or a constructive commentary about his commitment as a father?

Anthony is a vice president on the players’ association executive committee, but Roberts said she had not spoken to him about Jackson’s remarks, or anything else.

“I feel for ‘Melo, this is a tough time for him and I can only imagine how he’s feeling,” she said. “I know he has been talking to some other people so I’ll let him sort it all out.”

On what comes next professionally, he had the right to do so without Jackson publicly pushing him to the city limits, trying to recruit the fan base into his camp. If public shaming was Jackson’s game, he mostly succeeded – sanction or no sanction – in exposing himself.

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