- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

David Stern is playing tough with the NBA referees. You could argue it is long past time.

The lack of consistent officiating in the NBA is the dynamic that never goes away.

It is the dynamic that drives coaches, players and fans ballistic.

Maybe now, finally, Stern wants to drive a stake through the heart of a union that let him and the NBA down in the Tim Donaghy scandal.

It comes with a risk.

As maddening as the officiating can be - and maddening is too soft a description whenever LeBron James is allowed to “crab-dribble” his way to the basket - it promises to become even more infuriating with the replacement referees.

These are the backups who ply their craft in the WNBA and NBA Development League, in venues where being out of position goes with the program.

It is one thing to use replacement referees in the preseason. It will be another to dump them on a public that pays big dollars to attend an NBA game.

That will cheapen a product that already has taken a hit in a struggling economy. That will cheapen a product that routinely fights the charge that its 82-game regular season lacks intensity and drama.

Despite the risk, Stern seems prepared to remain in stare-down mode with the referees, to leave them on the outside over what amounts to a pittance.

That pittance is a pretext for Stern to make corrections to a union that apparently is tone deaf to all the conspiracy theories that feed on the inconsistent officiating.

The NBA is the only professional sports entity that plays amid suspicion, that sometimes is seen as only incrementally more genuine than the staged antics of professional wrestling.

The Donaghy mess was the big gotcha moment for conspiracy theorists.

See, they said, we told you all along.

Yet if Stern truly was the master manipulator of events, as the conspiracy theorists like to insist, the NBA Finals would have featured the LeBron-Kobe Bryant showdown that so many believed was a done deal at the start of the playoffs.

A LeBron-Kobe meeting is what would have been financially best for the NBA. But the Magic subverted that conspiracy theory.

Donaghy remains the unspoken element in this management-labor spat.

Stern absorbed the Donaghy hit for the referees. He has spent the last two seasons defending them, claiming that they make the correct calls about 90 percent of the time.

He has defended their integrity at every turn. He has trotted out statistics. He has talked of the vetting process. He has noted the subjective nature of certain calls, of how a split-second collision can play tricks on the eye.

Now Stern is kind of implying something different about the referees with his hard-line position. What he is saying is that the NBA referees are not as competent as advertised, that many of their backups in the WNBA and NBDL are just as capable.

Stern would not put it in those words. But that is what you can interpret from this lockout.

Maybe Stern has negotiated in bad faith, as the referees have suggested. Maybe this lockout is about Stern wanting the NBA to be rid of the older referees, the ones whose eyesight cannot be as sharp as someone 20 years younger.

Maybe he is planning to use the preseason in October to see which of the lower-rung referees are possibly ready to make the jump to the NBA. Maybe this is his way of developing a deeper pool of referees, of imposing competition on a union whose principal function is to extract money and protect its members, even the incompetent ones.

If so, good for him.

And good for the NBA.

The coaches, players and fans deserve far more consistency from the referees.

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