Referees assert NBA is allowing Mark Cuban to wield power over them 'via threats and intimidation'

The National Basketball Referees Association is aggressively asserting that the NBA is cowing to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, charging him with pursuing a competitive advantage for his team “via threats and intimidation” toward game referees.

The Vertical obtained a series of memorandums distributed recently among the league’s 64 referees – including correspondences between the NBRA and NBA – that describe over a year of discord between the referees and league office, largely centered on Cuban.

In a recent letter to Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, NBRA general counsel Lee Seham outlined what the union considers to be a lengthy pattern of documented violations by Cuban of the NBA constitution and “undue influence of the league’s management of its officials.”

“We consider the threat to the integrity of NBA basketball presented by Mr. Cuban’s misconduct to be real and growing,” Seham wrote on Dec. 9.

Cuban has been a longtime critic of the league’s officiating and referee management, accruing over seven figures in financial fines through the years for his public criticisms and behavior regarding referees. Cuban has been adamant in his displeasure over the quality, training and oversight of referees.

In response to the league rejecting Seham’s premise that Cuban holds an “inappropriate influence” over referee employment decisions, the union’s general counsel responded: “No other owner has communicated to our members with such force that he exercises control over their careers. He has communicated that he played a pivotal role in the termination of Kevin Fehr, a referee who met league performance standards. He has communicated to an NBRA board member, during contract negotiations, that the referees would continue to be at-will employees. He has told a referee, during a game, that he follows that referee’s game reports.”

Mark Cuban purchased the Mavericks in 2000. (Getty Images)
Mark Cuban purchased the Mavericks in 2000. (Getty Images)

NBA spokesman Mike Bass told The Vertical on Thursday: “We have no specific response to Lee Seham, the lawyer who represents the referees union. This approach is just the latest in a series of steps Mr. Seham has taken in an attempt to undermine the necessary transparency we have brought to our game.

“We will not be deterred or distracted from continuing to focus on improving our officiating.”

In a telephone conference call that included many of the NBA’s 64 referees this week, Spruell was met with several strong admonishments from individual referees decrying a lack of league support toward them, said sources with knowledge of the call. Also, the teleconference included dialogue between referees and Spruell that both sides considered constructive too, sources said.

In several internal and external memos over the past year, Seham portrays a league office unable to control or mollify Cuban, raising fears that his reported behavior is emboldening others to disregard league norms and rules.

Read Mark Cuban’s full response to the NBRA’s assertions here

“To suggest I have influence is to suggest that the NBA officials can be influenced,” Cuban told The Vertical in an email. “If an official can be influenced by pressure from anyone, they should not be in the NBA. I don’t believe they can be influenced. As far as my influence on employment, several years ago I sent a list to the NBA of officials who had been NBA officials for more than a decade and never made the playoffs.

“I asked why we weren’t bringing in better officials than those who weren’t able to crack the top half of officials. [I think it’s 37 who get selected as playoff refs.] I also asked if being an NBA official was a lifetime job and at what point do we recognize that there is someone else out there who can do a better job? I did this knowing that any terminated refs could receive substantial pensions. As far as anything else, I’ve been the same way since I bought the team and have no reason to change.”

In a memo sent to referee membership in 2016, Seham wrote, in part, “… Mr. Cuban’s practice of mocking NBA fines, by donating twice the fine dollar figure to charity, has convinced the NBA that it cannot deter his misconduct in this manner … The abandonment of any enforcement action by the NBA has communicated to Mr. Cuban that he can violate league rules … with impunity.”

After dialogue between the union and league in early 2016 focusing significantly on the NBRA’s issues with Cuban, the NBA issued an April 15 memo to its 30 teams titled “In-Game Conduct of Team Personnel.” That memo described “enhanced penalties” for future conduct violations, including “addressing profanity or derogatory language toward a referee” and “the use of profanity or objectionable language that could be heard by spectators.”

Essentially, owners, executives, coaches, staff and players were warned of more severe fines and punishments for improper behavior. Neither the memorandum nor the new guidelines were made public.

NBRA documents report that there have been incidents of Mark Cuban cursing at referees. (Getty Images)
NBRA documents report that there have been incidents of Mark Cuban cursing at referees. (Getty Images)

After its implementation, the NBRA reported a noticeable drop in incidents involving league personnel, including Cuban, for the rest of the 2015-16 season.

Afterward, “the 2016-17 season commenced with a resurgence of Mr. Cuban’s coercive conduct,” Seham wrote in a recent memo to officials detailing union interaction with the league office. “We emphasized that the coercive impact of these violations was exacerbated by Mr. Cuban’s comments to referees indicating that he exercised control over their careers e.g. advising that he played a role in the termination of a referee who had met League performance standards.”

In letters to Seham and the union, Spruell rejected the idea that Cuban holds any undue influence over employment decisions on officials.

In a Nov. 29 letter to NBA general counsel Rick Buchanan, Seham cited two new in-game instances with Cuban and referees this season. Both episodes in late November, the union said, included Cuban using his proximity to the Mavericks bench and huddle to yell at referees.

In the league’s response, Spruell told the NBRA that those instances were “borderline” but didn’t violate rules governing in-game conduct. The NBA has fined Cuban and Suns owner Robert Sarver for referee-related episodes this season, league sources told The Vertical. Those fines weren’t made public, which is sometimes the case with senior-level punishments in the NBA.

Beyond Cuban, the NBRA expressed dismay that the ejections of Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers and coach Doc Rivers in a Jan. 30 game at Houston did not include additional fines under the language of the enhanced penalties guidelines.

For instance, Seham wanted an additional fine for Doc Rivers’ reported language to a referee: “… We asked if the league’s new standard is to take no action when a referee is called a ‘mother——.’ In a supposed age of ‘transparency,’ the league could provide us with no cogent explanation as to why Doc Rivers was immune from a rule violation that, according to league policy, called for enhanced penalties.”

In the months preceding this “enhanced penalties” mandate in April, the NBRA documents outlined multiple 2016 referee game reports that included Cuban – and Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver – berating referees.

The documented reports include Cuban using an officials first name and stating that “you f—– up this game” and stating to a referee that “you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Another report, in a Jan. 17 game against San Antonio, referenced Cuban calling a referee “chicken s—.” The memo said, “When the official looked in the direction of the bench to see who made the remark, Mr. Cuban reportedly added, ‘That was me. I said it.’

“He then followed up the comment with words to the effect of: ‘You’re horrible. You can report it.’ The latter comment appears to reflect Mr. Cuban’s belief that he can act with impunity.”

Sarver, an NBRA document says, “moved toward the floor yelling that he considered a Referee a ‘f—— disaster” in a Feb. 21 Suns game against San Antonio.

After the NBRA was notified that The Vertical had possession of the memorandums and planned to report on the issues between the union and NBA, NBRA spokesman Mark Denesuk said: “While this memo sent to all NBRA members was intended for internal distribution only, now that it is public, we hope it will move the conversation forward and help to address issues that are threatening the integrity of the game.

“We want to work with the NBA, owners, players and coaches to protect what is great about the game we all love. In a culture where the officiated have increasing influence over those officiating, where the barrier is broken between those managing the game and those playing or coaching it, it quickly becomes a race to the bottom.”

Wrote Cuban in his email to The Vertical: “With just a few exceptions over the years, 99.99 percent of my issues have been with how the officials have been managed. The turnover at the top and the use of former officials as senior management with the expectation that they can manage their peers without having any outside management experience was and is a red flag to me. It leads to politics impacting evaluation and performance of the officials, and unfortunately, how the games are called.”

“It’s not about the officials,” Cuban wrote. “It’s about the situations they are put [in] by their management that make their jobs far more difficult. Managing NBA officials requires the ability to manage. Just because you were an NBA crew chief doesn’t make you a good manager of officials any more than being a good salesperson makes you a good sales manager. Until we have top notch managers managing officials, improvement will be difficult.

“Hopefully, with Byron [Spruell] at the top, things will change. But he has a tall task ahead of him.”

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