To Get Back on the Court, Older Refs Need to Swallow Self-Interest
But an impassioned plea from the two exec board dissenters -- identified by Sheridan as Bennett Salvatore and Steve Javie -- flipped a third exec board member -- identified as Bill Spooner -- and led to the eventual defeat of the deal on a vote by the full union.
When you take a look at just who makes up the leadership of the union, and you see what's at stake in these negotiations, you begin to realize why these negotiations are getting nowhere fast.
The league has denied previous union claims that commissioner David Stern is trying to push out older, more highly-paid referees. And I tend to believe the league on this: the relative savings of switching from a Salvatore to a younger official aren't that grand. The league maintains that the referee severance system, which the league says pays some refs upwards of $500,000 upon their retirement, has gotten out of hand and must be reformed. As so many industries struggle to meet pension obligations these days, the need for reform tends to make a lot of sense.
It's easy to translate that NBA desire as a method to push veteran refs out. But to me, it seems more of an issue of the league needing to start somewhere. In its latest concessions, according to Sheridan, the league has maintained current severance levels for the next two seasons. At that point, future severance payments awarded when refs retire would be reduced.
For referees like Salvatore, who will have turned 60 years old by midseason, that sticking point becomes a very personal issue. Effectively, approval of this deal would incentivize Salvatore to retire after the 2010-11 season. Salvatore may not want to retire at age 61. No NBA player ever wants to retire -- and refs have just as strong a link to the game. To vote for this current deal, Salvatore would put himself in the position of either needing to retire in two years or miss out on a few hundred thousand dollars in severance pay. It's a decision wrought with self-interest, obviously, as are most labor battles.
Javie and Spooner, while younger than Salvatore but still among the older half of the ref corps, are in the same boat: self-interest vs. ending this lockout. It's worth noting that the two members of the executive board who continue to support the latest NBA offer -- Joey Crawford and Bob Delaney -- are roughly the same age as Salvatore, among the oldest refs still working. But they apparently voted against their financial self-interest to end this stoppage.
The bigger concern is a pathway out of the stoppage. The NBA thinks the severance issue needs to be fixed ASAP. The older referees, led by Salvatore, Javie and Spooner, don't want to get pushed into retirement or screwed out of cash. The younger refs, apparently, have been convinced by the older crew that the union can somehow delay severance reform indefinitely. That belief seems short-sighted -- it will happen eventually -- and you wonder if at some point soon those refs who took the Salvatore/Javie bait will realize this, reverse course and vote to get back on the court.
Don't get it twisted: at this point, the best move for everyone involved (fans included) is to end the stoppage. If the hang-up is truly as embedded in the self-interest of a few older refs as it seems, then there's no excuse for the larger share of the union to keep shaking their heads. It does the referee fraternity no good in the long run to try to bleed the league of any more concessions related to severance pay. Because it's not going to work. It's time to end this. If the Salvatores and Javies won't do it, it's time for the younger officials to take control.