If the NBA and the National Basketball Referees Association do not reach an agreement by October 1, replacement refs -- likely culled from the D-League -- will be used for the first time since 1995.
Lamell McMorris, the chief negotiator and spokesman for the refs union, told FanHouse in an interview late Thursday that the league is asking for an inordinate and unfair number of sacrifices from officials in the current bargaining, which broke off after a fiery meeting Tuesday. One of the league proposals would restructure the retirement benefits for referees, switching from the current pension system to a defined contributions program.
"The NBA is trying to push out the veteran referees without violating age discrimination laws," McMorris said. "These officials live the game, they love the game, and the league is trying to push them out."
Veteran officials tend to make more money than more junior referees, as seniority plays a major role in postseason assignments. The playoffs are a huge financial boon for the league's best officials. Some critics, however, including ESPN's high-profile columnist Bill Simmons, have argued that old referees are part of the problem. Simmons noted during the 2009 playoffs that 13 of the league's referees are 54 or older.
In the NBA's Thursday statement, league counsel Rick Buchanan said that the union had previously agreed to the retirement benefits changes, but backed out of that portion of the deal in recent negotiations. Howard Beck's Times story also cited this as a source of particularly current contention.
McNorris also bemoaned the cuts in travel and per diem stipends he said the NBA has asked for. Referees have offered to cut travel budgets by 12% and per diem food allotments by 7%. McNorris said the league has asked for 30-40% cuts in these areas.
"These aren't diva requests," McMorris said, describing the hectic and unglamorous daily routines of NBA refs. "[The referees'] concern is getting to the arenas in the best condition to work possible. Working-class fans can probably identify with referees more than anyone else in the NBA."
"These officials live the game, they love the game, and the league is trying to push them out."Getting more personal, McNorris also noted that the three NBA executives charged with overseeing league referees -- senior VP "General" Ron Johnson and former referees Joe Borgia and Bernie Fryer -- will receive substantial raises in the 2009-10 season. He quoted the raises as $50,000 for Johnson, who was first hired by the league in the aftermath of the Tim Donaghy scandal, and $20,000-25,000 for Borgia and Fryer. The NBA would not confirm the raise amounts nor details about the contract terms related to the employment of Johnson, Borgia or Fryer, citing policy on personnel and privacy matters.
As mentioned earlier this week, the reported gulf between the proposals is $700,000, which makes up just 3% of the current referee budget and just 0.02% of total annual NBA revenue. As SuperSonicSoul cheekily notes, the NBA creates $700,000 of revenue in less than two hours of play.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Stern said he will not be participating in further negotiations with union representatives due to the rancor that has exploded in the aftermath of Tuesday's meeting. McMorris said that while the NBRA doesn't intend to soften its position (as the aforementioned rancor would attest to), the referees will gladly rejoin talks when the NBA is ready.
"Our referees just want to get on the court," McMorris said. "It's up to the NBA to do what's right."