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First there was the 2007 NBA referee cheating scandal. And now, substitute refs?

Looks like it. The NBA and the referees are in the midst of increasingly acrimonious negotiations that may lead to a lockout and the use of replacement refs when the exhibition season begins on Oct. 1. The last set of talks broke down last week, and the league has already begun training replacement referees.


The prospect of replacement refs doesn’t thrill me. But a few bad calls in exhibition games isn’t the real issue.

These negotiations are the under-card preceding the title-bout negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association. How the NBA fares with the refs will dictate their strategy with players. And it looks like the players can expect a hard, inflexible line from the owners.

The league is demanding $3.2 million in givebacks from the referees association and so far, has received much of it. The most recent counter offer from the refs' union agrees to $2.5 million, mostly in retirement benefits, per diems and severance packages. In return the league has caved on the length of the upcoming pact; usually these agreements are for five years, but this one will be for only two. The refs obviously feel that the economy will rebound by 2011, giving them more leverage.

The association is claiming the recession blues and says that more than half the teams lost money last year. In an unusual move, NBA commissioner David Stern took out a $200 million line of credit to assist teams with ailing bottom lines. However, this off-season was marked by some proliferate spending by the Detroit Pistons, the Toronto Raptors and the Portland Trail Blazers. If losing teams in large markets like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers were throwing money around like a teenager with their parents’ Amex, that would be business as usual. But mid-market teams like the Pistons and Trail Blazers are spending wildly as well, which signals that finances may not be as dire as Stern claims.

The two sides are setting up for what should be a heated battle in the boardroom. The agreement with the NBA Player's Association ends at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season. The owners could extend it in December, but have announced that they won’t. So both sides have created negotiating committees. The players will be led by veteran Los Angeles Lakers guard/sympathetic figure Derek Fisher, recently elected president of the player's association. The owners’ group is led by Peter Holt of the San Antonio Spurs.

The association’s stance with the refs hints at an uncompromising mood. The NBA has released details of what the refs make—salaries start at $150,000 and can go as high as half a million. So there will be no public sympathy for the refs, should they resort to picket lines. NBA players have an even weaker case for public sympathy; according to the salary figures at Hoops Hype, NBA players will make more than $2 billion in wages this season. Divide that among 450 players, and you get an average of almost $5 million per man. Of course, accurate records of the owners’ takeaway are much more elusive.


Baseball players get good deals in their negotiations because they have repeatedly caught the owners lying about the sport’s finances. The issue is equitable distribution of the wealth.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter