- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The lead negotiator and spokesman for NBA referees announced Thursday that the referees expect to be locked out when exhibition play starts Oct. 1 after contract negotiations with the league broke down this week.
Lamell McMorris, in a press release, also asserts that the NBA has begun to contact replacement referees to work in the preseason and perhaps the early part of the regular season.
NBA lead negotiator Rick Buchanan, in response, said Thursday that talks collapsed because the referees' union changed its mind after agreeing to accept the league's proposals on retirement benefits. Buchanan added that "all the union has offered to us is minimal concessions that are neither consistent with economic reality nor with the information it is currently distributing to the media."
The statements were issued in the wake of an ESPN.com report Tuesday, when the latest negotiating session between the referees and league executives came to an abrupt end in New York, significantly increasing the possibility that replacement refs will be needed in the NBA for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
"We understand that everyone in the country is facing tough times, but the NBA is continuing to make money, sign large marketing and television contracts and expand their business internationally," McMorris said. "We have attempted to negotiate in good faith and give substantial cuts to get the referees back to work."
In Thursday's editions of the New York Times, McMorris said he was "frustrated and disappointed at the unprofessional and disrespectful manner in which Mr. Stern ended what was a productive negotiating session" on Tuesday. McMorris also echoed the growing belief that Stern is taking a hard line with referees "to send a message to the players," whose own labor contract with the NBA expires during the 2010-11 season.
In a separate interview with the Times, Stern told the newspaper that negotiations with the referees have "nothing to do with the player negotiations" and insisted that Tuesday's talks, as Buchanan said, collapsed because McMorris' union reneged on previously agreed-upon facets of a new contract.
Said Buchanan on Thursday: "Everyone at the NBA has a great deal of respect and admiration for our referees. With that said, the actions and statements of their union over the past 24 hours have been extremely disappointing. Personal attacks and inaccurate assertions in the media are hardly constructive methods of bridging differences or ultimately making a new agreement.
"It is and has always been our goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the referees that is fair and appropriate, and we remain hopeful this can still be accomplished prior to the start of what promises to be another exciting NBA season."
The NBA's contract with its referees expired Sept. 1, but no further talks are scheduled between the sides with only 20 days before the league's Oct. 1 exhibition opener (Denver at Utah).
Asked if the dispute can be resolved before the season starts, Stern told the Times: "Right now, I'm not optimistic."
ESPN.com reported Aug. 25 that the league is seeking an across-the-board reduction of 10 percent to a referee budget that costs an estimated $32 million. In his statement Thursday, McMorris said that the referees have proposed a reduction to the budget of $2.5 million, which includes freezing salaries for the 2009-10 season in addition to reducing travel costs by 15 percent and per diem by 7 percent.
"In our proposal, we sought reductions in the NBA's referee program expenses consistent with cuts we have made in other areas of our business -- all in response to the current economic climate," Buchanan said. "At the same time, we sought to soften the impact of these changes on the referees by preserving their existing levels of salary and playoff compensation and agreeing to a two-year term that would provide them with another opportunity to negotiate in the near future if the economy improves."
One source with knowledge of the league's thinking has openly questioned the referees' leverage, telling ESPN.com last month and reiterating this week that he expects the refs -- in this depressed economy -- to ultimately accept the additional reduction from $2.5 million to $3.2 million when faced with the reality of not working.
The referees have scheduled a meeting in Chicago next week to discuss their next steps, with their annual training camp in New Jersey -- scheduled to start Sept. 20 -- on hold.
It appears more likely that the league will be setting up a training camp for replacement referees for the first time since the 1995-96 season, when refs were locked out for more than two months before reaching an agreement to return to work in December 1995.
Two current vets refs, Bill Kennedy and former NBA player Leon Wood, are notable examples of 1995 replacement referees who wound up working in the league full time.
The referees have argued against the severity of a 10-percent budget cut by insisting that the late hours they work and difficult travel conditions they endure -- in addition to the injury risks and daily scrutiny they're subjected to -- make them unlike any other group of NBA employees. The refs' union has also protested the reductions by questioning the raises it says have been awarded to three senior league officials in New York -- Ron Johnson, Bernie Fryer and Joe Borgia -- who oversee the referee program.
McMorris also represents Major League Baseball umpires, whose labor contract expires Dec. 31. But the baseball negotiations, in the words of president of the umpires' union Joe West, are on track "to get a deal done well in advance of that date."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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