As rumors of progress between the players and owners swirl, the latest labor strife for the NBA is just beginning.
The players are the priority and that has seen the owners commence a second lockout, this time of the NBA referees. That began September 1.
The often-maligned group of NBA officials are never far from criticism. Someone always has a complaint with them even though they have an insanely difficult job judging some of the greatest athletes in the world, moving at incredible speeds. And they have to be perfect. It is a thankless job.
But NBA referees go under even more criticism. The Tim Donaghy specter still exists and more people know NBA referees than in any other sport. It even sometimes feels like Steve Javie, Joe Crawford or Dick Bavetta upstage the game with their own little show. That isn’t ideal in the world of referees, a group that tries to live in anonymity.
It would be easy to treat this news with some sarcasm. And you would hope the NBA (and its competition committee) will address some of these issues when it comes time to negotiate.
But it is also easy to forget just how good these guys are at their jobs.
As Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk notes, it is easy to forget how much everyone complained when the NBA went to replacement referees in 2009. Preseason is not the cleanest basketball, but it was clear quickly into the preseason that the NBA and the referees needed to get a deal done or else the regular season would be a real slog fest full of fouls, inconsistent calls, and complaints. More than there are now.
The last time the NBA locked out the referees, the league was able to continue negotiating with them through September and get the officials back in time for the regular season. With the players lockout going on, the league probably will not get to it now until after the players are figured out.
Still that does not mean there has not been action in this labor battle. Peter May of HoopsHype reports the referees have filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. One was withdrawn and the other is making its way through the process with the NLRB. Judging by the complaints the NBA and players made and the progress they have made, it could be a while.
Typically, as May writes in detailing the history of referee labor strife, these issues do get resolved pretty quickly. And there is a sense that the referees recognize where they are in the pecking order of labor negotiations.
NBA referees are a controversial topic. They are far far far from perfect. But they are still likely the best at what they do, and get it right most of the time — with some very blatant and public exceptions.
There are issues for the league to figure out. The complaint with the NLRB includes a complaint about the league trying to fire officials without cause. There is also going to be some negotiation, I am sure, with age restrictions moving forward. May further reports that the officials believed David Stern was “unprofessional” in dealing with the referees the last time they had a bargaining session.
I will not blame him too much, he has other negotiations on his mind.
But, the NBA would not be the same when it comes back if our favorite referees are not there to entertain and frustrate us. Whether we like them or not (and most NBA fans are probably in the “not” category), NBA basketball would be a lot worse without them. Once the players’ situation gets solved, the referees should follow soon after. If not, the NBA product will be a little worse coming out of a potentially damaging lockout.