NBA players, referees discuss rising issues, agree to improve communication

Silver is encouraged about players and referee relationship (1:27)

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talks about the efforts to mend the relationship between NBA players and officials after a high number of technical fouls so far this season. (1:27)

LOS ANGELES -- A small group of NBA referees and players held a meeting Saturday, working to relieve mounting tension between the sides.

The meeting included three players, three referees and officials from both the referees' union and the players' union. Among the items agreed on was establishing a direct communication line between the two unions that would not involve the NBA league office to address issues that arise between the sides, the unions announced in a joint statement.

There are procedures involving the league office in place, and those will continue. But there was a concern from the unions that sometimes the league office doesn't communicate the same information to referees and players, and that was contributing to the divide, sources told ESPN.

Technical fouls and ejection rates are flat this season compared to last, with referees calling 0.67 per game after calling 0.63 last season. But for various reasons, the level of discourse about player-referee relationships has increased significantly. Several high-profile players, such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green, are on pace to receive suspensions for technical foul totals. There has also been some surprise ejections, such as the first of LeBron James' career.

Several issues that have been causing friction were raised during the meeting. One, sources told ESPN, is the referees' enforcement of the so-called "respect for the game" rules. These rules were introduced by the NBA in 2010 and updated in 2015 and were aimed at limiting players' reactions to referee decisions, among other issues.

Both unions, however, believe the current rules aren't effectively being communicated. A large percentage of technical fouls are called for violating these guidelines. Officials believe they are enforcing the rules, but players don't always feel they are breaking them because there isn't a shared understanding, sources said. The referees acknowledged that they have sometimes been inconsistent in the application of these rules, sources said.

Another issue addressed was the relationship between younger officials and players, which has been deteriorating at times this season. The sides discussed differing levels of respect that exist based on the experience of a referee and a player and how those can be mitigated.

Referees and players also discussed techniques for dealing with each other within games. For example, one of the actions discussed was referees giving the so-called "stop hand" to players during disagreements. While this is taught to referees as a way to diffuse a situation, it has been taken as offensive by players who want to have more of an open back-and-forth. Overall, the sides would like more open discussion of various hand signals and techniques.

The unions agreed to have more meetings in the future.

The league itself was not represented at the meeting and was not involved in setting it up. The NBA did recently announce a five-point plan to improve player-referee relationships and is currently conducting meetings with teams across the league.

"I think it's fantastic and a great statement about this league that these important stakeholders in this case, our players and the officials, think it's important enough and they have an obligation to the game where they should be sitting down and talking to each other," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday. "Because at the end of the day, I mean, as I've said before, I've never thought this was just about ratcheting up fines. I think that there's a larger issue in play here, and almost one that's a little societal in we owe it to young fans who are watching, we owe it to young people who get enormous satisfaction out of sports, to see that we truly can get along and be respectful and empathetic.

"The fact that these two groups want to sit down with each other and say how can we both do a better job, how can we create a better understanding, is fantastic."

The NBA's referee operations department is in the first year of an overhaul, as several long-time executives recently left the company or were reassigned. It hired retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson as head of referees operations and promoted well-respected referee Monty McCutchen to head of development and training.