NFL, referees reach tentative deal, return to field Thursday night


The NFL and the union reached the deal after two days of intensive negotiations following a controversial and widely ridiculed play call at the end of the Monday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, which may have altered the outcome of the disputed game.

Fan reaction to the performance of replacement referees since the season began four weeks ago. Monday night's controversy drew particularly severe condemnation from fans nationwide.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said a regular officiating career would be back on the field for Thursday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns.

The deal was still tentative Thursday. It must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members. A vote was planned for Friday and Saturday in Dallas.

The game records of the first three weeks will not be changed.

According to a source, the NFL installed a $2.5 million ratification bonus in the deal. After the deal is voted on the NFL is expected to give the NFLRA a check for $2.5 million.

The ratification bonus is to be distributed to the 121 members of the association as it sees fit. The $2.5 million will help ease the loss of four preseason and three regular-season game checks for the officials. In a season, members of crews are supposed to officiate 19 games.

The agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. The tentative pact calls for their salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.

Under the proposed deal, the current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years' service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.

Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement. The annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019.

Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year round, including on the field. The NFL also will be able to retain additional officials for training and development, and can assign those officials to work games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the league.

Replacements have been used both to play and officiate NFL games before. In 1987, the players went on strike and three games were played with replacement players. In 2001, the first week of the regular season was officiated by replacements before a deal was worked out.

One big difference: The replacements 11 years ago generally came from the highest levels of college football. These officials were from lower college divisions or other leagues such as Arena Football.

After Seattle's 14-12 victory against the Packers, their ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew mounting criticism, with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden calling their work "tragic and comical."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to the fans who fretted through three weeks of replacement officials calling their favorite teams' games.

Without prompting, President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, on Thursday applauded news of a deal between that the National Football League and the referees' union.

"The president's very pleased that the two sides have come together," Carney said, adding, "It's a great day for America."

ESPN and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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