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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009, 11:13 am

NBA to Use Replacement Refs During Labor Lockout

BY Akito Yoshikane

Referee Bill Spooner separates players during a May 2009 NBA game in Cleveland. The league's referees are locked-out over contract disagreements.   (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The National Basketball Association will start pre-season games this Thursday, but the usual referees won't be calling the shots.

The league informed teams in a memo Tuesday that they will go ahead with using replacement referees due to an impasse over retirement benefits with the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA).

The NBA has held training camps with substitute referees from the Developmental League and the WNBA over the weekend. With no new NBRA contract at hand, it will be the first time the league will use replacements since the 1994-95 lockout.

After the referee union's contract expired September 1st, the two sides have been negotiating a two-year deal. They have been unable to agree on the changes in retirement and pension benefits, and are also at odds over a league proposal to allow younger developing referees (non-union) to officiate some NBA games.

At the core of the conflict, the NBA wants to reduce severance packages for retirees that award up to $575,000 and pension benefits that can exceed $2 million, according to Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s executive vice president and general counsel.

But Lamell McMorris, the chief negotiator for the referees, counters with a hypocrisy claim, since league officials and executives who oversee the officiating were awarded raises and bonuses.

"I just thought that was an unfortunate low blow that they're attempting to do in order to create media spin and I guess to try to get fans to not sympathize with our plight," McMorris said via AP.

Like other major sports, the NBA is tightening their budget in response to the recession. Commissioner David Stern revealed during the off-season this summer that less than half of the league’s 30 teams turned a profit. The NBA also laid off 80 employees last year, about 9 percent of their staff.
Still, it said league-wide revenue increased 2.5 percent last season.

Both sides have made concessions, but neither side is budging over retirement and pension benefits.The referee union has tentatively agreed to a shorter two-year contract. Previous deals have been for five years. The NBA has agreed to hold referee salaries steady this year, with a slight increase next year.

With a gloomy economic forecast, negotiations have been tense. Referees gathered in Chicago two weeks ago and unanimously rejected the league’s offer in a 57-0 vote. Soon after, the NBRA announced a lock-out and added they were prepared to use replacement referees. Both Commissioner Stern and McMorris have since removed themselves from the talks.

"The proposals we have made to the NBA are extraordinarily fair and reasonable, given the current economic circumstances," said Rick Buchanan in a statement. "Since late 2008, the league and our teams have made far deeper cuts in non-referee headcount and expenses than we are asking for here."

For players, the prospect of replacement referees invokes memories of a disastrous stint in 1995 that ended up with plenty of player fines, injuries and in-game confusion.

''Players throughout the league are concerned that the use of replacement referees could compromise the integrity of our games,'' said via AP Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher, also the president of the NBA Player’s association.

The NBA says the current replacement referees have solid training under the league’s system with more supervision now, a sign that the league has learned from its past.

But the league might want to keep this labor dispute in mind in 2011 when it has to renegotiate a collective bargaining contract with the Player's Association. If this labor dispute with the referees is any indicator, the NBA may have another headache coming.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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