Refs lockout 'imminent and unavoidable'

Updated: September 17, 2009, 9:17 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NBA referees expected a lockout to be "imminent" after negotiations Wednesday between their union and the league failed to produce a new collective agreement.

After rejecting the league's latest offer by a vote of 57-0 at their meeting in Chicago on Wednesday night, the union and league exchanged further counterproposals Thursday, with the union claiming to have made $1 million in additional financial concessions.

But the talks ended at an impasse, and lead union negotiator Lamell McMorris said there remained a crucial unresolved dispute over the same retirement benefit issue, relating to severance pay, that caused commissioner David Stern to abruptly end a formal bargaining session nine days earlier.

A source close to the talks said there were other unresolved issues, too, including the use of D-League and WNBA referees in regular-season NBA games, a separate pension issue concerning employer vs. employee contributions to referees' retirement plans, and myriad other comparatively minor dollars-and-cents issues pertaining to salaries, per diems, and medical and dental benefits

"It looks like a lockout is both imminent and unavoidable," McMorris said. "We have suspended dialogue again today. We've been in constant communication, but it's not going to happen."

"I am not optimistic," lead NBA negotiator Rich Buchanan told ESPN.com. "Based on what happened today, I'm surprised and disappointed."

Technically, the referees are not yet locked out.

But their training camp is scheduled to begin Sunday in New Jersey, and McMorris said the 57 current referees would not attend if they do not have an agreement in principle to replace the labor agreement that expired Sept. 1.

The first exhibition game is Oct. 1 in Utah, and the NBA faces the prospect of using replacement officials for the first time since 1995.

With talks at an impasse, McMorris and the referees gathered at an airport hotel outside Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss strategy and attempt to move the process forward. But the talks collapsed by mid-afternoon and the referees were sent home.

On the issue of severance pay, it has been long standing practice for NBA referees to receive a severance package upon retirement, plus their pension. The NBA wants to eliminate the lump sum severance payment upon retirement for new referees and those with less than 10 years of service, and the union is not budging.

"There are some changes that they would make that would drastically change the scope and nature of certain benefits to the referees in the NBA," McMorris said. "Our fight is for all of the officials, not for a certain segment of them, not for a certain age, etcetera, and these folks are willing to stand up for everyone to receive certain benefits that have been a part of this job, which is like no other job in the world, for some time now.

On the unresolved D-League and WNBA referee issue, the NBA wants to use those referees in 75-100 regular season games instead of sticking with the current system in which they only are allowed to officiate preseason games.

"There are concessions they're willing to make, there are changes they're willing to make, we gave back an additional $1 million in concessions in the last 24 hours, but there are some things we cannot concede," McMorris said. "I don't know how you can lockout employees that are willing to continue to give back money, that's just kind of beyond me. But the fall work schedule begins this weekend, and it appears that is not going to happen. It's not going to happen with us, it's not going to happen with the 57 active referees."

Entering Wednesday's meetings, the referees claimed they had agreed to $2.5 million of the $3.2 million in concessions the league was seeking.

The NBA believes the gap was more significant, and has made the case that it make a substantial concession in agreeing to the union's request for a two-year deal to bridge the league's economic crisis. Traditionally, the NBA has negotiated five-year labor pacts with the referees.

But the crux of the crisis now is the NBA's continuing belief that McMorris reneged on his word at the talks in New York nine days ago, and also the league's belief that the union backed off two additional agreements during Wednesday's talks. If both sides dig in their heels, which seemed to be the case as Wednesday's developments unfolded, it would only back up McMorris' prediction that a lockout is indeed imminent.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

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