I like NBA referees as much as the next basketball junkie -- who doesn't delight in watching Joey Crawford tee up Jerry Sloan? -- but as they sit at home these days watching Forget Paris on DVD, I have one bit of career advice for them:
Grab your whistles and get down to the arena ASAP.
At the moment, the NBA -- in a contract dispute with the refs -- is using replacements to officiate preseason games, and when the regular season begins later this month, it will continue to use replacements.
The NBA also locked out the referees for 68 days in 1995. This time around, if necessary, the league will lock them out for 68 weeks.
The regular refs need to know two things:
1. You have no leverage.
2. You can't outduel David Stern -- it's like trying swap spit with an alligator.
The NBA and refs' union are at odds mainly over pension, retirement and severance packages.
(I was once locked out by my first wife. Pension and retirement packages were not at issue; rather, she was insisting on "immediate severance.")
So let's talk leverage.
Frankly, the referees at NBA games are as interchangeable and replaceable as toll-takers along Interstate 95. I'm not saying they don't do a good job -- most of them do -- but finding other people to nail Anderson Varejao for flopping is not as difficult as, say, finding other people to analyze mitral valve prolapse data at the Mayo Clinic.
To most fans, the games look the same no matter what three-man crew is working it.
Heck, I was watching a Cavaliers preseason game the other night and saw LeBron James take four or five steps without a traveling call -- just like with the regular refs.
(On the other hand, I remember I had a replacement judge for my second divorce and there was lots of pushing and shoving.)
Anyway, I believe Citizen Kane used replacement gaffers, and filmgoers couldn't tell the difference.
Gerald Ford was a replacement president, and America kept operating without a hitch.
Most pertinently, the NFL -- during a players' strike -- used replacement players in 1987. And guess what? People still watched.
That reality needs to sink in to Dick Bavetta, Steve Javie and company. Repeat: The NFL took players off the street and the games went on. Believe you me, the NBA could take referees out of a South Park episode and the games would go on.
Another problem for the referees is public perception. Curiously, in most labor-management disputes, the public -- which is largely made up of labor -- tends to favor management. NBA referees make between $90,000 and $350,000 a year; in other words, they are among the few who can easily afford tickets to NBA games.
There will be no fans picketing NBA arenas with "Free Bennett Salvatore" signs.
Even if the public were behind the refs' union, everyone storming the castle would not shake, rattle or roll David Stern, the benevolent monarch who has been NBA commissioner since 1984.
Stern doesn't negotiate, he dictates. His idea of a compromise is to wait an hour before you do what he says. Like Michael Corleone before him, Stern might wake up on any given morning and say, "Today, I settle all family business." And -- bang! -- he would do what he needs to do to do what he needs to do.
I know firsthand how tough Stern can be. One time, after I lambasted him in a column, NBA TV disappeared from my cable package, and to this day I am only allowed to watch NBA games on a black-and-white TV.
The NBA has 60 regular officials; Stern, I'm sure, summoned up substitutes between a massage and a manicure. Besides, how hard is it to find 60 replacement refs? You just need 59 guys who make calls that favor the biggest stars, and one guy who bets on games and provides gamblers with inside information.
Q. From where you roost, would NFL players be right to refuse to play for Rush Limbaugh? (Joe Caputo; Columbia, S.C.)
A. 1. Frankly, Limbaugh would be less dangerous as an NFL owner than as a radio talk host. 2. Have these players looked at the roster of current and former owners? Let me know when they find MahatmaGandhi's name.
Q. Why doesn't the NFL just drop all pretense and initiate a rule change prohibiting defenders from touching Tom Brady? (Allen Johnson; Monroeville, Pa.)
A. True story: I accidentally bumped into Tom Brady in a supermarket checkout line last month, and the store manager confiscated my groceries and tossed me out.
Q. Is Chad Ochocinco the "player to be named later" I'm always hearing about? (Bill Downall; Indianapolis)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
Q. If Chad Johnson had changed his last name to 85 in Polish instead of Spanish, would ex-jock broadcasters have had trouble pronouncing "Chad Osiem-Dziesiaty Piaty?" (Ken Wolnik; North Royalton, Ohio)
A. New math: Ochocinco equals $1.25.