Monday, September 21, 2009

Lockout: NBA refs face uphill battle

By John McMullen

(The Phan) - After failing to reach an agreement with its officials, the NBA went nuclear and locked them out late last week.

The league is now scheduled to start referee training camp this week with replacements from the Developmental League and WNBA.

"The proposals we have made to the NBRA are extraordinarily fair and reasonable, given the current economic circumstances," the NBA's Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rick Buchanan said in a statement. "Since late 2008, the league and our teams have made far deeper cuts in non-referee headcount and expenses than we are asking for here.

"It is extremely disappointing that the NBRA has ignored the economic realities, rejected our offer, and left us with no choice but to begin using replacement referees."

The NBA's offer that was on the table would have maintained current levels of referee salaries but "modestly" reduce the NBA's referee costs through changes to benefits and travel policies.

"Modestly" is, of course, the adjective used by the league.

The NBA had also accepted the union's demand for a short two-year agreement, so that the referees would be able renegotiate as the economy improves.

Under the prior collective bargaining agreement, which expired on Sept. 1, referees were awarded enhanced retirement bonuses of up to $575,000, on top of pension benefits that could exceed $2 million. These retirement benefits, which the NBA has proposed to change, were in addition to compensation of almost $150,000 per year for entry level referees and over $550,000 per year for the most senior referees.

Labor issues aren't exactly the easiest things to understand so I went straight to an expert on union issues and lockouts, Richard Hankins, partner and key member of the Employment & Labor Law Practice at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Atlanta.

For more than 20 years, Hankins has advised U.S. corporations on a wide variety of complex labor relations matters, including large-scale union organizing and decertification campaigns, strikes and secondary boycotts, union jurisdictional disputes, and successor employer claims.

"Obviously the league is still looking for ways to cut costs," Hankins said. "This is not a great time for any union to be in negotiations. Strong and powerful unions will have trouble in this economy. An unpopular one could end up on the brink pretty quickly."

Despite the uphill battle, the league's 57 active officials stuck together and unanimously rejected the NBA's offer, a bold position considering their reputation coming off the Tim Donaghy scandal.

"It's going to be very difficult for them," Hankins said. "It's not like the public is going to stay home because there are replacement officials. They can count on a bit of solidarity from the players in terms of complaining about the replacements but other than that I don't see many strengths."

So what happens now?

The first preseason game is scheduled for Oct. 1 and the NBA hasn't used replacement referees since early in the 1995-96 season.

"The threat of a lockout is fairly common," Hankins said. "An actual lockout is not terribly common. The league wants to put pressure on.

"As I size it up. I have to believe something is going to work out. Once the replacements hit the floor, this could drag on. The referees have to know that."

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