Oh, The Irony: NBA Referees' Lead Negotiator Finds Himself a Replacement

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Replacement Referees Ready for Preseason

With the NBA referee lockout still in full effect, the NBA is set to bring in the scab refs. The replacements will take the court for their first action this week when the NBA preseason begins. The NBA hopes the new referees fare better than the notoriously poor (which, by the NBA's standards says a lot) replacements refs in 1995 did.

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Referees' Lead Negotiator Backs Out of Talks

This whole NBA referees mess isn’t getting any prettier at this point:

The lead negotiator for the locked-out NBA referees removed himself from the talks Monday in hopes of resolving a dispute that threatens to have replacements on the floor this week.

Lamell McMorris released a statement saying the negotiations with the NBA would be handled by general counsel Brian Lam and the executive board of the National Basketball Referees Association.

McMorris said his departure was “in the best interest of the NBA Referees and the league.” He did not comment beyond his statement.

Hmm. So McMorris is out. In his spot is Lam. So you could say that Lam is a “replacement” for McMorris. Oh, the irony …

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NBA Referee Lockout: Are the Stripes Really Greener?

SBN's Bright Side of the Sun has their own take on the labor stoppage:

With a lockout looking more likely, NBA fans should be prepared for things to get a lot worse. WNBA and D-league officials and terrible. The only hope is that this is about more than money and that the NBA is trying to push through much needed reformed including the easing out of elderly refs that can barely keep up with the fast-paced game.

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Pierce angry about replacement refs

According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears, Paul Pierce is none too happy with the league's failure to reach an agreement with the referees' union.

"I think it’s terrible that they don’t have a deal in place," Pierce said. "The league needs to step up and get it in place. Last [season] they talked about difficulties with the refs … and I’m like, ‘These guys have been around all these years and now you’re throwing out replacement refs?’

(H/T to Jeff over at Celtics Blog)

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Should the NBA Use FIBA Refs?

ESPN’s True Hoop has a fantastic piece up today, in which they ask Alejandro Sanchez Varela, a FIBA ref out of Uruguay, to discuss the prospect of FIBA refs working NBA games. He began by citing this quote, from Joel Litvin, the president of “league and basketball operations”:

“I think it speaks to the fact that our current staff of referees are the 60 best in the world,” Litvin said, “and the referees who will replace them are probably pretty close to being the next best 60 in the world.”

And he responded thusly:

I am sure they are not the next best 60 in the world, Mr. Litvin. Top FIBA referees are the next best 60 in the world, and among them European referees primarily. And the explanation is easy: Referees working in Euroleague and in the major FIBA tournaments are the ones officiating the best level of basketball after the NBA. And for taking a job like this one, experience is what counts.

Nicola Vujcic, Theodoros Papaloukas, Pablo Prigioni, Carlos Arroyo, Dimitrios Diamantidis, Igor Rakocevic, Tiago Splitter, Trajan Langdon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Matjaz Smodis, amongst others, are the best players in the world after Bryant, James, Howard, Wade and Paul Pierce. And the ones receiving the major contracts, also after the NBA players. So be sure that the FIBA referees working Euroleague games are the next best 60 referees in the world. Oh, and not to mention that they are the ones working the Olympic Games and all the world tournaments.

He continues from there in great detail, and it’s pretty fascinating. Indeed, there are significant differences in the officiating of FIBA and NBA games, and Varela is comprehensive in highlighting various differences between the two. As he explains it, the transition would not be easy.

Still, it does seem that if the NBA is truly looking for the next best officials, they should turn their focus to those of FIBA. Given that this labor strife centers on a disagreement over hundreds of thousands of NBA dollars—for you or me, this would be like haggling over five bucks—you’d think the NBA could end this lockout at any point. Still, if they plan on digging in their heels on this one, maybe it’s worth training FIBA officials? As long as they don’t legalize goaltending, that may be the most reasonable solution to any of this.

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Could a Refs Lockout Be a Good Thing for NBA Fans?

Aside from the awesome title of his post (“Good Lockin’ Out?”), over at Celtics Blog they lead a thorough discussion of the referees lockout and its potential implications. For one, they examine some of the action from the NBA’s last experiment with replacement officials in 1995.

In their analysis, they found that often times problems arose when replacement officials called fouls according to strict interpretation of the rule book. In turn, the replacement refs were easily intimidated by the backlash they faced from players. Take the case of Dennis Scott:

Here’s what I saw from Dennis Scott in one of the games I went back and watched, though: He backed down his man in the low post and was called for an offensive foul when he shoved his man off his spot with a forearm to the chest. It was probably a foul that nine times out of ten would not be called, but on this occasion, it was. His reaction? He disrespectfully fired the ball back at the official, hitting him in the shins as he signalled to the scorer’s table.

Was a technical foul called, though? Nope. And did Scott get hit with that call again? Of course not. He continued to back down the smaller guards and went to the line for 6 shots, all of which he made en route to a game-high 30 points.

Clearly, although they weren’t refereeing “the NBA way”, the officials were still susceptible to being intimidated.

The analysis evolves from there, and raises some interesting questions. The discussion is certainly worth your time if you care about NBA basketball. For one thing, Celtics Blog vocalizes what a lot of us have been quietly wondering for the past week or so.

Many people have joked that, "It can't be any worse," and it is interesting to consider.  If the main problems in 1995 were because the replacements called it by the book and didn't overlook certain violations, then it would be very interesting if that happened again this time.  Very, very interesting. [...]

If LeBron James gets called for a travel every time he comes off a pick at the top of the key and takes three steps before taking off for a big dunk - or if he decides to add another step to his now-legal "Crab Dribble" and starts calling it a "Lobster Dribble" or something, but the officials refuse to allow it, then he'll be calling the officiating "horrible" too.  Maybe that's how it would be remembered in fifteen years, too, but the rest of us would find it a refreshing change.

Would the NBA be better off with replacement officials?

That this is even a question speaks volumes about the officiating incompetence that’s emerged over the past decade—I mean, games were fixed, but it’s impossible to tell which ones, because a solid 50% of the games featured horrid officiating. Now, that is why the referees have no leg to stand on in these labor negotiations.

Still, it seems overly-simplistic to say that simply because the system is broken, “new blood” would be an upgrade. It smacks of Curt Schilling’s talk of a Congressional run. Well, they’re not doing it right, so even though I’m not remotely qualified, I'm an upgrade. Right, Curt. Lesser officials may not buy in to the league’s political, bogus “star-treatment,” but if they’re lesser officials, there will be other problems. I’m quite sure that there are plenty of people in the referees union that shouldn’t be officiating NBA basketball, but I’d bet my life that, on the whole, the replacements are far less skilled.

Improving the NBA by replacing the referees wholesale will simply solve one problem (star treatment, traveling, etc) and create any number of other problems (for one, the replacements will be easily intimidated, to say nothing of the skepticism that would pervade any time they made a call late in the 4th quarter). No. Instead, the NBA needs to revise the system a bit, with tweaks like these:

  • Vet officials for biases—Bill Kennedy should never, ever referee a Celtics, for example, and Joey Crawford shouldn’t work Spurs games.
  • Fire bad officials—Violet Palmer was an NBA official for ten freaking years. Enough said, I think.
  • Get ride of Flagrant 2s. Judgment calls—like deciding whether a foul on breakaway is flagrant 1 or flagrant 2—place too much of a burden on officials. The players are too fast and too athletic to ask refs to make split-second decisions, and often times, those decisions can decide playoff games, or even a series. Why not to leave those to league office, and do away with the distinction between flagrants?

And those are just a few suggestions. The NBA has people whose sole job is to oversee officiating. To think that they can’t improve the system is ridiculous. And that the system’s remained unchanged and broken for this long isn’t an indication of incompetent refs, but moreso, of a hubris on the NBA’s part.

Replacing the union referees won’t erase that hubris; it’ll only make the league look more cartoonish, as we watch a bunch of lesser referees get pushed around by superstars, while the NBA plays hardball with its referees over (relative) loose change. All while refusing to fix a system that’s been broken for years now, and has fundamental, systemic issues that have nothing to do with the referees union.

This lockout is a good thing; insofar as it indirectly sheds light on an issue that's been plaguing the NBA for years now. But if it does nothing to change the system, and only leads to a few new officials, going through the same, old process, then we're essentially just fooling ourselves into a solution. The problems will persist, the league will continue to pretend there's nothing wrong, if occasionally scapegoating an official, and it'll all detract from what's otherwise rounding into quite a compelling era for pro basketball.

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A Look at the Resume of One Replacement Ref

Bethlehem Shoals has an interesting look at one of the refs the NBA has invited to participate as a replacement officials.

That would be Michael Henderson, who was suspended for poor officiating in the past, and for whom the NBA Referees Union organized a mass-protest in the past. He’s now out of the union and free to do as he likes, but in taking work with the NBA, he’s undercutting a group of people that were publicly and loudly loyal to him in the past. Way to return the favor there, Mike.

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Canadian Labor Law May Complicate Lock Out

David Stern may have to hold back on using scab refs. The East Bay Express reports:

But, according to Canadian law professor David Doorey, the presence of a team in Canada, the Toronto Raptors, may limit the NBA’s options. The Canadian labor law that covers the Raptors contains stout protections for workers, protections that are missing in American labor law. The protections require the completion of a conciliation process run by their Ministry of Labour before any lock out, Doorey says, a process that the NBA has not begun.

So, due to the presence of the Toronto Raptors in the league, the desire of the NBA to completely scab the games will be stymied in Canada, setting up a very complicated situation for the league as a whole.

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NBA Officially Locks Out Refs

On the heels of his tweet that the league is set to start training replacement refs, comes the official news from Adrian Wojnarowski that the NBA has locked out the referees:

Talks ended on Thursday, when the league and NBA Referee’s Association were unable to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The NBA will use Developmental League and WNBA officials to start the preseason, and perhaps, the regular season. […]

The union believes that the NBA is asking for too many give backs in the league’s current proposal, and voted 57-0 among its officials to reject the NBA’s latest offer.

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NBA Set to Begin Training Replacement Refs

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! tweets:

The NBA will start referee training camp with replacement officials next week

Presumably, the NBA will instruct the scab refs in the dark art of calling phantom fouls against whomever is guarding Lebron James or Dwyane Wade. And reminding them that in the NBA traveling does not exist.

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Lockout Now a Real Possibility

After things were looking good for NBA referees, now a lockout is said to be “unavoidable”:

After rejecting the league’s latest offer by a vote of 57-0 at its meeting in Chicago on Wednesday night, the union offered counterproposals Thursday in which it claimed to have made $1 million in additional financial concessions.

But the sides remained at an impasse, lead union negotiator Lamell McMorris said, over the same retirement benefits issue that caused commissioner David Stern to abruptly end a formal bargaining session nine days earlier.

“It looks like a lockout is both imminent and unavoidable,” McMorris said. “We have suspended dialogue again today. We’ve been in constant communication, but it’s not going to happen.”

Referee training camp — whatever that is — is scheduled to start Sunday, but the 57 NBA referees will not attend if there isn’t an agreement in principle by then.

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Both Sides Getting Closer to a Deal

Yesterday's meeting with the NBA went better than expected, and in the wake of what was called a "very emotional" meeting, the referees union is doing its part to reach an agreement. At least, that's what they're trying show the public, adopting a demonstrative "lock-in" strategy to try and devise a proposal that the NBA deems acceptable.

From Howard Beck at the New York Times:

“The referees are locking themselves in, in an effort to get a deal done as soon as possible,” Lamell McMorris, the referees’ chief negotiator, said just after midnight, following the marathon meeting. [...]

“Every referee is here, from all around the country,” he said. “They’re not leaving.” [...]

“There was some movement, but not much,” McMorris said, after what he called “a very emotional” meeting. “We are staying here all night trying to come up with a counterproposal. We’re trying to meet the league halfway on all these issues.”

So what does this mean? Nothing, for now. McMorris, the referee's chief negotiator, still expressed the need for the NBA to "meet us halfway," and whatever counterproposal emerges from the marathon deliberations among the referee's union will likely require concessions on the NBA's side of the negotiations. And with David Stern sitting on that side of the table, it's unclear whether those concessions will ever be made.

Particularly given the showy nature of the refs public relations tactics; because make no mistake, this lock-in was devised to show you, the paying fan, that the referees are doing their part to resolve this conflict. With the implication being, look at us! We're staying up all night and working on a contract, it'd be nice if the NBA would put forth the same effort.

Stern doesn't take kindly to such tactics, and as we've discussed before, the only people less likely than the players to engender public sympathies are the refs. Stern knows this, and with more than a few people suggesting that replacement refs might not be the worst idea ("new blood" is what we keep hearing tossed around), you can bet that he'll utilze every bit of leverage he has. So get comfortable, refs, that lock-in may last longer than you think.

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NBA Referees Set to Meet on Wednesday

The NBA referee union is set to convene on Wednesday to throw their support behind Lamell McMorris, the union’s negotiator. The NBA and referees have not sat down at the table since commissioner David Stern stormed out of the meetings last Tuesday.

The union’s contract with the league ran out on September 1st and the league may have to use replacement referees for the preseason and possibly the start of the season.

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Stern Sitting out of Rest of Referee Negotiations

If the NBA and the referees' union decide to sit down at the table and continue negotiations, they will continue without NBA president David Stern.

Referees spokesman Lamell McMorris accused Stern of acting childish and not negotiating in good faith, so Stern removed himself from the process.

Stern said Thursday he told McMorris that, “In fact if it was going to get personal—which apparently he’s decided to make it by calling news media and leveling a series of inaccurate allegations—that I would absent myself from the negotiations, which I have.”

Stern is not one to be messed with because he definitely runs the NBA with an iron fist. It is his way or the highway when it comes to these things. But with the referee issues that the NBA has been seeming to run into, the idea of starting the season with replacement referees may make things more shady.

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The Battle Gets Ugly

Today, the NBA referees released a public statement criticizing Stern and other league executives for their handling of this matter. Tom Ziller at AOL Fanhouse continues with his sharp analysis:

The union struck the first blow, issuing a release torching the league for putting the pinch on referees while it signs major marketing contracts and gives its executives raises. (The release specifically mentions three league execs charged with overseeing refs: Ron Johnson, Joe Borgia and former NBA ref Bernie Fryer.) [...]

As someone who has observed the league for a while, I would never recommend jabbing Stern with a sharp object as a path toward getting what you want. Even the stars of the game can't pull that off. (See: the 1998 player lock-out.) And the referees know this. But it doesn't seem like they will be backing down, not after this round of cannonfire.

Indeed, as someone who's observed the NBA for a lot less time than Ziller, even I know that much: publicly criticizing David Stern and his business partners will get you nowhere. Stern is a rather intimidating figure, and David, if you're reading this, I wish you the best of luck with the upcoming season, and I hope that you can resolve this unfortunate situation as quickly as possible. Don't worry, the refs will come to their senses.

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Is The NBA Trying to Scare the Players Union?

Tom Ziller of NBA Fanhouse (and Sactown Royalty, more importantly) wonders whether the NBA is using this situation to send a message to its players:

The facts certainly imply this is a scare job: Stein reports the league is pushing for a $3.2 million reduction of the total ref budget (a 10% cut), while the refs have said they will give up no more than $2.5 million (or 7.8%) total. That zone of disagreement -- $700,000 -- is, of course, small potatoes. It equates to some 0.02% of the total NBA revenue pot. [...]

It's not that the refs today or the players tomorrow are necessarily right -- it's just got to be a bad feeling to see a megalith like the NBA threaten a lockout over a measly $700,000 (assuming Stein's figures are correct). The fact that the referee budget (which includes salary, travel, playoff bonuses, health benefits, pension payments) is only $32 million -- the equivalent of five players making the average NBA salary -- is a bit jarring. Our game is in these referees' hands, and they can affect each and every game ... and combined they make about half of what the Bobcats make.

So again, we come to that 700,000 number. It's not very much money for the NBA to be worried about, and yet, David Stern is making cryptic statements about "valuing referees" and there are no meetings scheduled for the future. Plus, as Ziller points out, you could make a case that NBA referees are underpaid as is. That the NBA is refusing to budge certainly seems to encompass a good measure of symbolism; these are hard times, even for what Ziller calls a "megalith." And David Stern is not going to bullied, here, there, or most importantly, during next year's labor discussions.

That much is becoming clear.

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Will the NBA Use Replacement Referees?

When ESPN's Mark Stein broke the news a few weeks ago that negotiations between the NBA and its referees union had reached an impasse, it came as a footnote during an otherwise dull period for sports. And today, when Stein floated the idea of the NBA using replacement referees, well, it's still a footnote. It's football season, you see. We'll start talking about basketball season when Halloween arrives.

Stiil, it's a move that figures to have significant bearing on at least the first few months of this season. Stein reports:

One source said Tuesday that the referees have proposed a reduction of $2.5 million -- roughly $700,000 away from the NBA's target -- but added that the refs are bracing for a lockout at this point after Stern "shut [Tuesday's] meeting down."

The source said: "We anticipate that there will be replacement refs."

"I think it would be accurate to say that we had the meeting, that we didn't make any progress and that there are no future meetings scheduled," Stern said Tuesday night in a telephone interview with NBA TV. "... Referees are a valuable part of our game and we've tried to treat them accordingly."

The NBA's officiating is certainly not a strongsuit--perhaps the one group that would engender less support than the players union would be the refs. Still, to quibble over such a narrow disagreement--$700,000 is not much alongside the NBA's $930 million-a-year in television revenues--seems to speak to larger message from the league. In the midst of a down economy and with myriad teams in the throes of financial crisis, the league is in no mood to negotiate.

So, then: who wants to remake The Replacements and Forget Paris into one, awesome romantic comedy?

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