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As the clock ticked toward midnight at the NFL offices inside 345 Park Ave. and Week?4’s slate of games grew closer Wednesday, the league and its referees’ union came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The team owners lifted the three-month lockout, allowing the regular officials to return to the field, flags in hand, for Thursday night’s contest in Baltimore, where the Ravens and Browns will meet at M&T Bank Stadium.
The settlement came at the end of a nonstop negotiation session. The two sides met for five consecutive days, the pace picking up in light of Monday night’s mayhem when the Seahawks defeated the Packers, 14-12, on a blown call in the end zone as time expired. Replacement officials had drawn the ire of players, coaches, fans, gamblers and government officials, including President Obama, who called the play “terrible.”
“We look forward to having the finest officials in sports back on the field, and I want to give a special thanks to NFL fans for their passion,” Goodell said. “Now it’s time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs.”
The eight-year labor deal was completed 48 hours after the Packers-Seahawksdebacle occurred on national television. It would be the last call made by the replacements.
“We are glad to be getting back on the field,” NFLRA president Scott Green said.
Goodell’s leadership was called into question throughout the process.
Governing under the flag of player safety, his decision to allow inexperienced referees to regulate a game played at a speed much faster than many of them were accustomed to tracking left the league’s integrity in limbo. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers alleged that the league had willfully “tarnished” the game for the sake of saving money on the referees.
The league had attempted to temper emotional responses and discipline those going over the line over the last three weeks. Four coaches, including New England’s Bill Belichick and Denver’s John Fox, were fined for demonstrative acts. Belichick drew the highest fine at $50,000for grabbing an official after the Patriots lost. He accepted the punishment without complaint on Wednesday.
The timetable from allowing the ink to dry on this deal to the 121 regular referees being on the field is expected to be minimal. The officials need to meet to ratify any proposal accepted by the NFLRA’s board of directors, and are expected to vote on it in Dallas on Saturday.
Goodell, meanwhile, confirmed that regular officials will be back for the Ravens-Browns game.
Ed Hochuli, the popular referee known for his muscular physique, has kept the officials strong mentally with weekly conference calls to review rules. Hochuli administered tests that would be normally be given during weeks in the regular season for working crews. When word spread of a deal approaching, his name trended worldwide on Twitter.
The two sides struck an accord on the issue of backup officials, too.
The reserves, 21 in all, will not be members of the NFLRA, and will gain experience in a developmental program. They will work with NFL crews during the week, but not call games.
Credibility was at the heart of the criticism from league members and onlookers alike. With officials incorrectly interpreting rules, misapplying yardage and failing to flag obvious interference calls, onlookers and participants were flummoxed. Piling on, the Lingerie Football League announced that several of the replacement officials had been deemed unusable or too inexperienced for their brief encounters.
Monday night’s fiasco at the end of Seattle’s controversial win over the Packers inspired players, coaches and fans to complain about the league’s stance. In the game, Seattle wideout Golden Tate shoved safety Sam Shields to the ground in the end zone, but was not flagged for offensive pass interference. Tate proceeded to reach for the ball, but Packers defensive back M.D. Jenningsgot his hands on it first and appeared to bring it to his chest. The officials, however, called it a touchdown. Seattle won.
The commissioner wants to incorporate improvements to officiating as well. Goodell has sought the power to sit officials who are downgraded during the season. The NFLRA maintains that the league’s ability to keep one to four crews home each weekend already affords the league that right.
For Thursday, there is one certainty: a veteran official, working with a crew of six others, will blow the whistle Thursday night that sets in motion the first game of Week 4.
- Eight-year deal.
- Apart from their benefit package, the game officials' compensation will increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.
- The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season (or until the official earns 20 years of service). The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.
- Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option of hiring a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year-round, including on the field.
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