Replacement Referees May Be a Worse Answer in This Labor Dispute

Referee Luis Grillo would perhaps be more appreciated by the NBA's players if he were not on the court with them.
Referee Luis Grillo would perhaps be more appreciated by the NBA's players if he were not on the court with them. (By Mark Duncan -- Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, October 2, 2009

Anything in sports preceded by the word "replacement" is a bad thing. Replacement players, replacement teams and even replacement refs. They're not as good, not ever, as the people they're replacing and worse yet, the product always suffers. That brings me to the NBA, which has locked out its officials in a contract dispute and is going with 62 replacement referees as the preseason begins this week.

It's become fashionable in recent years to trash the men (and one woman) who officiate NBA games, and it became far too easy when referee Tim Donaghy went to jail for providing information to gamblers. You can't get through two days of the playoffs without somebody talking (absurdly) about referees being involved in "conspiracies" that would favor the Lakers or Celtics or somebody. Even so, the real refs, the ones currently locked out, are the best in the world at calling NBA games, and if you don't think so just wait until there's a controversy involving a play called by one of the replacement referees, who will come from the NBA's Development League, the WNBA and NCAA.

Okay, there's a month to get a deal done, which seems like plenty of time, except the referees' lead negotiator removed himself from the talks after the union voted not to accept a recent proposal. And as someone familiar with the negotiations told me yesterday: "We're talking about pension and severance at this point. The two sides just aren't that far apart."

That gap was narrow enough that after a meeting in Philadelphia last Friday, which the NBA initiated, the league thought there would be a deal after making some concessions. The league even drafted a memo that told its teams an agreement in principle had been reached on a two-year deal. But that was last week. Tuesday, the NBA, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of a memo, told its teams the league had "no expectations of concluding a timely labor contract." reported that the locked out refs voted 43 to 14 to reject the latest offer from the league after veteran referee Bill Spooner, who's a member of the union's executive committee and a hard-liner, changed his mind. For basketball fanatics who know the personalities of the league's most recognizable refs and want to keep score in this little game, it's said that Bob Delaney and Joey Crawford are ready to end the dispute and get to work now, while Spooner, Salvatore Bennett and Steve Javie are the hard-liners.

The bottom line, as it usually is in these situations, is that the NBA needs its regular officials and the refs need to work. In 1998, the NBA players, even with as much money as they make, found their resources strained by a work stoppage. So how long can the referees, who make between $91,000 and $350,000 or so a year, stay out? "About a month," one source said. There are some referees who are already worried about mortgage payments and others who have already moved their kids from private to public schools.

In 1995, the last time the league and its referees were locked in a dispute, the solution was fairly easy: The NBA needed to open its wallet. The '90s were part of the league's golden age. It was three years after the summer of the Dream Team. There was no crying poor. There was no case to be made for the NBA acting tough with its refs.


The referees have so little leverage. Some say none. "You've got different owners than you had in 1995," one source said. "You've got harsher economic times. You can't sell sympathy for people making between $90,000 and $300,000-some dollars when some season ticket holders have lost their jobs. They're in a helluva predicament. Owners wanted to fire 10 [referees] already. . . . There's a segment of owners and some league executives who are quite willing to let this happen."

Also working against the referees, according to another source, is the fact that the referees coming from the D-League are so much better prepared to work NBA games than anybody was in 1995, when there was no D-League. One person close to the union said he worries "that the D-League guys will be competent enough that it won't make that much of a difference to the people consuming the product."

The NBA players aren't buying that, not yet anyway. Denver's Kenyon Martin, known to not only have run-ins with refs but relish them, is expecting issues. "I'm going to get suspended in the first month of the season," Martin told Fanhouse. "I'm going to have 15 technicals in the first month just for the simple fact that [replacement refs] don't know how I run my mouth. . . . The game is going to be terrible with those replacements."

The NBA might have been more susceptible to that argument, from the locked-out referees and the players, 14 years ago, but it's unlikely now.

One sports labor lawyer said recently, "If the economic downturn is going to force the players to have to take a $700 million hit, what makes you think the league is going to give in to the referees?"

Just as the NFL is expecting teams to have television blackouts because not all the seats are sold, as has been the custom, NBA teams are braced for season ticket and sponsorship cancellations. Those who have been in favor of the referees accepting the NBA's latest offer point out that instead of a five-year deal, the league is offering two years. "They could be back at that table in better economic times, in two years," the source said.

Martin, as only he could express it, put the onus on NBA Commissioner David Stern to figure out a way to get the regular refs on the court by the start of the season. "It's on David Stern to get it done," Martin said. "Ain't nobody else but him to get it done."

The irony is that the only time NBA referees are appreciated is when they're not around, though don't ask coaches about that. For every coach, like Larry Brown, who expressed some sympathy for the officials who are locked out there's probably one like George Karl, who didn't bother to edit himself when he told reporters recently, "Coaches think refereeing is bad no matter how good it is."

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