ESPN’s Mark Stein reported last night that talks between then NBA and the referees have broken down regarding a new contract and that the league is considering using replacement (which is a nicer way of saying ‘scab’) refs. The current agreement expired Sept. 1.
There is ample precedence for such a move. The NBA went this route in 1995… and it was an unmitigated disaster. (Interestingly Bill Kennedy, Doc Rivers’ bete noir last season, came into the league in 1995.) The league also did so in 1983 and 1977.
Not surprisingly the issues at the bargaining table come down to money. The NBA wants givebacks from the refs and the refs don’t want to give. Of course this may all be posturing.
As everyone who follows the NBA knows, the officials operate under almost as much scrutiny as star players and coaches. From Tim Donaghy’s incarceration on gambling charges to Joey Crawford’s meltdown via Tim Duncan to Rivers and Kennedy and many more, the officials have not been one of David Stern’s favorite topics over the last few years. So, perhaps the league is trying to rattle their cage with the threat, and it’s not like the refs have a deep reservoir of good will to draw from in their time of need.
But this is dangerous territory for the NBA, because while the league may be all too willing to throw out the idea that anybody can come in off the street and work an NBA game, history has shown that it’s just not true. Check out this Steve Kelley column in the Seattle Times circa 1995 which features this quote from Rivers, then with the Spurs:
“This is what’s going to happen,” Rivers said. “The calls are going to get so bad, guys are going to get upset. There’s going to be a bad fight. Or somebody’s going to get mad and undercut somebody else.
“They’re going to be injured, career-wise, and then the league’s going to get sued. That’s what’s going to happen if this continues.