The National Football League completed an eagerly awaited deal with its referees Wednesday night to end its lockout of the sport’s regular officials and pave the way for them to return to the field immediately.
The league and the NFL Referees Association announced they had agreed to an eight-year labor pact and planned for the regular officials to work Thursday night’s game in Baltimore between the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns. They are to officiate a full slate of games Sunday.
“Our officials will be back on the field starting [Thursday] night,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written statement. “We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement.”
The agreement between the league and the referees’ association ends the NFL’s use of the replacement officials who worked the entire preseason and the first three weeks of regular season games, sometimes with chaotic results.
Scott Green, the president of the referees’ association, said in a written statement: “We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week’s games.”
Negotiators for the two sides began the task late Wednesday night of putting the agreement into writing.
The officials are scheduled to meet Friday and Saturday to take a ratification vote. In the meantime, the NFL agreed to lift the lockout for Thursday night’s game. It is to be formally ended once a written deal is approved by the referees. No ratification vote by the NFL’s franchise owners is required.
Representatives of the two sides met into the night Wednesday. It was their second straight long day of negotiations after they’d made progress Tuesday during meetings in New York that began in the morning and lasted into early Wednesday morning.
The deal was reached in the wake of a firestorm of criticism voiced at the league after Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks ended with what to most eyes was a blown call by the replacement officiating crew that gave Seattle a last-second victory. The mounting pressure by fans, media members, players and coaches to bring the regular officials back was acknowledged earlier Wednesday by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
“Your loud voices [are] heard about getting Refs back,” Irsay wrote on Twitter. “We’re desperately trying [to] get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall.”
Reaction Wednesday afternoon at Washington Redskins headquarters in Ashburn to the pending return of the regular officials was just short of gleeful. The Redskins play Sunday in Tampa against the Buccaneers.
“It’d definitely be great to have them back out there,” said Lorenzo Alexander, a veteran Redskins linebacker. “Obviously they’re the refs for a reason. I think they’ll handle the games in a more professional manner and be more consistent. So it’d be great to have them back out there.”
Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III pointed out that it would be a “new experience” for him to play with the regular officials on the field and said perhaps play will be “cleaned up” a bit.
Said Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan: “It’d be nice to have them back.”
Criticism by players and media members of mistakes by the replacement officials had intensified in recent weeks, reaching a fever pitch after the Seahawks-Packers game. The NFL announced Tuesday that it backed the replacement officials’ decision to award the catch for simultaneous possession between Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Packers safety M.D. Jennings.
But the league also conceded the officials missed an offensive pass interference penalty on Tate that would have ended the game with the Packers winning.
Tuesday’s bargaining session was scheduled prior to Monday night’s controversy and some people close to the talks said the national furor over the call would have little or no effect on the league’s stance in the negotiations. A person with knowledge of the negotiations said Tuesday night that the owners were firmly against making any further compromises in the talks. Still, the deal was struck only about 48 hours after the final play of the Seahawks-Packers game.
The deal runs through the 2019 season and gives significant raises to the officials, who are part-time employees. The average NFL official earned $149,000 last year. Under the new deal, that is to increase to an average of $173,000 in 2013 and $205,000 in 2019.
The two sides had been particularly at odds over pensions, which seemed to emerge as the major sticking point late in the negotiations. Referees wanted to retain their pension plan, which the league apparently considered too generous, particularly for part-time employees. The NFL wanted to switch the officials to 401(k) retirement plans.
The compromise that was struck, according to an announcement by the league about the terms of the deal, would keep the pension plan in place for current officials for five years through the 2016 season, at which point it will be frozen. Newly hired officials will be given 401(k) retirement plans, as will all officials beginning in 2017.
The league also sought during the negotiations to make some officials full-time employees and to increase the overall number of officials to enhance its ability to replace those officials that it considers to be underperforming.
The deal, according to the NFL’s announcement, allows the league to make some officials full-time employees beginning in 2013. It also allows the league to hire additional officials for training and development, and gives the NFL the ability to assign those officials to work games. The league’s announcement said it could determine the number of newly hired officials. There currently are 121 officials.
“The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating,” Goodell said in a written statement. “This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating.”