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David Aldridge

League, referees resume talks with deadline looming

By David Aldridge,
Posted Sep 17 2009 2:31PM

The NBA and representatives of its officials' union resumed talks via phone Thursday afternoon on a new contract for the referees, with less than two weeks to go before the start of training camps and with the possibility of the league hiring Development League officials for NBA games looming.

It is the first time since last week that the two sides have resumed discussions, after heated meetings that led to Commissioner David Stern recusing himself from future direct discussions with the referees.

The referees' union voted 57-0 Wednesday night to reject the league's latest proposal, but discussions between the referees, who are hunkered down in Chicago, and the league in New York continued Thursday morning, with the union making a counteroffer to the league, according to Lamell McMorris, the union's attorney.

"We've locked ourselves in (a hotel) at.O'Hare Airport," McMorris said Thursday afternoon, before heading into more negotiations with the league.

"We're attempting to demonstrate to the league that we want to get a deal done, and we just need the league to work with us."

The league has been seeking signfiicant reductions in both the overall compensation it pays officials and to the referees' retirement packages. Initially the league was looking for a 10 percent cut across the board, but made some concessions in its latest proposal. However, the two sides are still far apart on non-economic issues, including retirement packages. McMorris said last week that the league is also seeking indemnification from age discrimination laws that would make it easier for the NBA to replace older officials.

Asked if the overall monetary concessions or the non-economic issues were a greater impediment to a deal, McMorris said Thursday, "we're having some challenges reconciling some of the systemic changes. Money always comes into play with all of this, but it's more the systemic changes -- which have economic challenges as well."

The referees have agreed to some reduction in their annual compensation, including a wage freeze for this year and cuts in their travel budget and per diems, but the union says the league is seeking more, pointing out that the current recession has led to massive financial losses in the last year.

Two sources with knowledge of owner finances say that the league collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars last season, with the prospect of even more red ink this coming season. Renewal orders for season tickets for fans and corporations went out in the spring for most teams, and although several clubs have instituted more generous payment terms and conditions, most teams are expecting the worst.

Last week, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that employees on the Miami Heat's basketball operations departments, from team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra on down, agreed to 20 percent salary reductions for this season in order to avoid layoffs. The Heat had to lay off 20 employees in the spring from its business operations staff, including longtime community relations director Wali Jones.

"Our members are not blind to the economic reailties that the league claims they are under, and that we're obviously under as a country," McMorris said. "But we also recognize our worth as it relates to the product that is on the floor, and the integrity of the game. We're not shooting for the moon. We recognize we're not the players. But we also recognize we have value. We have to be able to walk away from this negotition at least with our heads held high, with some amount of dignity."

The referees' contract with the league ran out Sept. 1. The officials are seeking a two-year deal with the league so that they may be able to recoup some of their anticipated losses if they agree to the NBA's demands on the new deal. The league will use replacement officials from the Developmental League for preseason games beginning Oct. 1 if there is no deal with its existing referees.

The last time the league used replacement officials was 1996, when the league locked out its officials for more than two months and players chafed at what they considered sub-standard officiating.

Thursday, the union sent out a memo detailing the numerous fines and suspensions handed out by the league during the five-week period in 1996 when replacement officials were used. According to the memo, the NBA issued more than $200,000 in fines and suspended players for a total of 26 games for fights in November of that year, compared to $147,000 in fines and 22 games in suspensions for all of the 1994-95 season.

In addition, the memo detailed injuries to Chris Webber and Shaquille O'Neal that the anonymous author claims may have been prevented if the regular referees had been on the court. The memo also quoted prominent players, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who decried the job the replacement officials were doing and welcomed back the veteran referees once they agreed to a new deal on Dec. 7.

"They don't seem to have control out there," Jordan was quoted as saying in late October of '96 about the replacements.

Stern has left the current face-to-face negotiations to NBA Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rick Buchanon, who was on the phone with McMorris Thursday. McMorris said he was hopeful that a deal could be reached in the next day or so, and would continue negotiations indefinitely as long as the league was willing to keep them going. The referees have their training camp scheduled for this coming Sunday, and already had to cancel their annual meeting with the NBA Coaches' Association, which is taking place this week.

"So far, they're demonstrating a willngless to negoatiate today," McMorris said. "We're demonstrating the same...we're going to remain open. We have shown nothing but good faith from these negotiations from the start. We don't plan on changing that. We also understand we're going to get a certain point where the window of opportunity for us and the league will run out."

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