March 12, 2020

 

Dear Refs,
 

In a complete 180 from I wrote you just two days ago, I’m disappointed to announce that all league games — YMCA, church, city, youth, and adult — as well as all tournaments are suspended until further notice.  When exactly they’ll return is none too clear because breaking news about the pandemic continues to come in on an hourly basis.  Back on Monday the thought of cancelling our events this weekend seemed like a joke.  I laughed with Russell of LA Elite whether we should consider running their club basketball tournaments with no parents allowed in the arena.  Maybe I shouldn’t have tempted fate…

Yesterday I fielded many of your calls, texts, and e-mails about how long this work stoppage may last.  I want to let you know that I understand your anxiety.  For many of you, officiating is a main or incredibly important stream of income.  Given that Ref Union is my job, I obviously fall within that group as well.

It seems surreal because when we go outside, it doesn’t feel like the apocalypse.  It’s actually kind of nice.  Outside of the toilet paper aisle at the local Target, it’s less congested, and people are finally taking personal hygiene and sanitation seriously.  Therefore you’re probably thinking, “what gives? If the kids are healthy, the coaches are healthy, and the parents or fans on the sideline are healthy, why can’t we play?"  Well, the point of the shutdown is to keep it that way.  This hiatus buys time for the virus to run some of its course while our communities equip themselves to treat the infected.

 

There are only 200 (reported) cases of Coronavirus in California thus far.  That in itself is not the issue so much as the potential for the virus to rapidly spread.  The danger lies not in any individual getting it; the crisis would come if too many people get Coronavirus at the same time. 
It would cause a burden so taxing on our healthcare system that it may indeed lead to massive casualties especially amongst our most vulnerable: the poor, elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions.

 

And so we have to wait, despite being anxious, able-bodied, ready, and willing to work.  However, here is why it is not as bad as it may seem.
 

We are all in this together.

 

I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but every time a young recruit tells me that they want to referee for a living, I do my best to knock that stupid idea out of their head.  Officiating is a brilliant avocation, a great source of supplementary funds, but unless you make it as a regular on the Division 1 circuit or to the pros, it should never be your only job.  I’d say a great majority of current NBA refs — who are all incredibly intelligent people — held down steady jobs as they rose through the ranks.  If you officiate full-time, all it takes is one sprained ankle or broken leg and suddenly you’re left at the mercy of scrounging up another job or relying on handouts from friends and family.  This pandemic is another great example why.  However, unlike the broken leg, the work stoppage affects us all equally.  Thus if you subscribe to the theory that wealth is relative, then no referee or contract laborer in the gig economy is making out any better than the other.   You’re not on the sidelines watching the train go by — the train is currently not even at the station.
 

Furthermore, none of our jobs are going away.  Every league, every program, every gig that we had will eventually come back.  And this waiting game might be over sooner than you think.


We all take our cues from above. When the NBA announced the suspension of their season, the date wherein they might return would provide pretty good indication of when the rest of us might return to normalcy.  They already announced that they are slated to reconvene in about a month.  However, I believe that we will return to action considerably quicker.  The NBA, the NCAA, and other sports leagues intentionally took a very cautious approach with a very conservative estimate of when they might resume. 

That is because they can afford to.  Many of the programs we service and the facilities which host their events cannot.

Whatever losses we are experiencing pale to the money that our tournament hosts lost by cancelling or even postponing their events.  For Open Gym Premier, the Mamba Academy, and other programs, hosting basketball events is the crux of their business.  The American, Momentous, and Ladera Sports Centers also cannot afford to stay empty for long.  They will need to return to servicing events, perhaps at a much smaller scale and with heightened precautions at first, but they have salaried employees and baseline expenses that they will not be able to meet by remaining static.  The billionaire owners of NBA teams can risk losing half of a season; we’ve had lockouts before that stretched much longer than this pandemic.  Our local programs do not have that flexibility.

 

DO NOT STAY THIRSTY, MY FRIENDS.


When the games do reconvene, the last thing we can afford to be is desperate.  It would eradicate all of the progress we’ve made in collective bargaining towards raising our wages over the last few years.  Tournament directors reeling from these cancellations and postponements will be looking for avenues through which to mitigate their losses.  There will be some assignors that will see this as an opportunity to poach accounts looking to pay less.   We cannot help them by being so desperate as to work anything we can get our hands on.  

When games reconvene, we must treat it as business as usual.  We will come back to work at full pay, the same conditions, and looking forward to more progress once the sports industry fully returns to normalcy. 
 

Do NOT allow directors to try to recoup lost profits off your backs.  We too are the victims of this unanticipated furlough.  We too are losing money which we may not be able to recover.  Do not let programs treat this as a rehash of the 2008 recession, which they milked for years while convincing referees that they cannot afford pay raises due to economic conditions. 

When games come back; so must our pay. 

 

STAY READY
 

Until then, please take all necessary precautions in order to stay healthy.  Contracting the Coronavirus yourself will add another three weeks to getting back on the courts.  Tighten your belt and take some time to research other streams of income if you haven’t already.  Although unemployment benefits typically do not apply to independent contractors, in an increasingly gig economy, there is a chance temporary relief might be included in a stimulus package passed at the federal or state level.  As depressing and fear-inducing that the news might be right now, you might want to check in occasionally for the status of any available funding or just to see if the Coronavirus is finally easing up.

 

Without a doubt the next few days or weeks are going to feel pretty long.  But as fast as fortunes change, they can always change back.  Stay positive, vigilant, determined, and most importantly hygienic.  (Wash your goddamn hands!)
If you need anything (other than games), please let me know.  I will keep you updated on the status of our leagues and tournaments as soon as anything comes in.


Cheers to good health,
Chris Balasinski
Ref Union

 

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