Sympathy For The Refs

More and more it's looking as if the NBA will lock out its referees and turn to scabs instead, and no one will much protest because NBA refs aren't exactly coalminers in Matewan. But this is nevertheless a bad development.

Reports Marc Stein:

The NBA's most recent contract with its 60-plus referees expired Sept. 1 and Tuesday's bargaining session in New York was called to an abrupt halt by commissioner David Stern, according to one source with knowledge of the talks.

No further talks are scheduled between the sides with only 22 days before the league's first scheduled exhibition game Oct. 1. The likelihood that replacement refs will be needed for that game — Denver at Utah — has "increased dramatically," according to the source.

According to ESPN, Stern wants to slash the $32 million referee budget by 10 percent; the refs have reportedly offered a reduction of $2.5 million, about $700,000 shy of the NBA's benchmark. Of course, as Stein notes, the impasse may have less to do with money than with Stern's desire to appear menacing just as collective-bargaining talks with the players get underway. He's basically doing a Haka dance on top of the negotiating table.

If the league does wind up trucking in scab referees, few people will mourn. Just look at the comments appended to Stein's story, which are mostly a variation on, "Well, they couldn't be any worse." (The argument could be made that the league's incessant mommying of its referees caused some of the very problems that fans instinctively blame on the zebras. The flopping plague, for instance, has a lot to do with the NBA's crackdown on botched non-calls, which gave refs incentive to over-officiate.) In 1995, the league locked out its referees until mid-December, using officials from the CBA and other minor leagues. And, as the Orlando Sentinel found when the lockout finally ended, the scabs were, in fact, worse:

Fighting was up, calls were missed and confusion was not unusual. In November, the league assessed $202,500 in fines and 26 games were lost to suspensions. All last season, there were only 22 games lost and only $147,000 in fines were assessed.

But no one likes referees, and now, after Tim Donaghy, no one trusts them either, which is why Stern will get away with trampling them, no matter that whistle-happy scabs could very well make NBA games sound like bird sanctuaries.

Replacement refs for NBA? [ESPN]
NBA officials see themselves in no-win situations [ESPN]