“Geezers With Whistles” Wrong Rallying Cry for NBA Refs

Refs playing wrong card in labor battle with league

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On Thursday, Lamell McMorris, the head negotiatior for the NBA referees union, told the New York Times that a lockout has become "imminent and unavoidable" after contract talks between the union and the league fell apart. That means that when preseason games get underway on October 1st, WNBA and Development League refs will be working the whistles and, as in 1995, these replacement refs could work games that count.

As in any labor negotiation, there are several issues on the table but the ones causing the biggest bones of contention have to do with changes to the severance policy and the implementation of a new system to develop new referees that would give 100 assignments to up-and-comers. McMorris accused the league of trying to "purge some of the older referees from the staff," which may be the prudent thing for the union but a killer move for the court of public opinion. 

The general consensus of basketball fans is that the level of officiating in the NBA is about as good as the level of hygiene in a bus station. That the level will only get worse with replacement refs helps the union get a deal eventually, but they could turn this thing in their favor very easily by taking a more enlightened position toward the integration of new referees.

The union should be pushing for a process that produces a reliable pipeline of newer and younger referees because it would express their desire to be as good at their jobs as possible. The current referees are salaried, which means no money would come out of their pocket. There's no way the union can claim that refs in their mid-50's can do the job as well as people 20 years younger in better physical condition, so they should be highlighting the fact that the NBA doesn't do anything to train new officials.

That's an issue where they could really gain some ground. The league itself has never seemed to care at all about uninspiring officiating in its games, to the point where they treat anyone who criticizes them like Fidel Castro treats someone who calls his beard a bourgeois affectation. If the union stood up and said, "Hey, we want to be the best that we can possibly be at our job, but the NBA cares more about their bottom line than the game of basketball," they'd be getting praised from all corners of the basketball watching universe.

The NBA wants this lockout because the whole impasse is a prelude to one they'll have with the players union in 2011. They want to set a hardline tone and establish that they're losing money, so there's absolutely nothing for the referees to lose by going all-out in an attempt to win the battle for public opinion. Call for more and better training, call for more transparency so that refs can explain and defend their actions and call for the league to care as much about that facet of the game as they do about making sure that the league's brand visibility is growing in Krakow. It might not get them the deal they want in the end, but it would go miles with those of us who watch the NBA.   

Instead, they and the NBA are both taking that position and simply approaching it from different directions. The kneejerk reaction to protect the veteran referees at the expense of new blood only sends the message that the referees care about protecting their own, whether they are good or bad at their jobs.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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