Deal! Real NFL refs to return Thursday night
A referee indicates a Seattle Seahawks game winning touchdown over the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Seattle, Washington, in this September 24, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS)
Hallelujah! The replacements are outta here.
The NFL reached a tentative deal late Wednesday night with its locked-out regular game officials, the league announced just before midnight EDT.
"Our officials will be back on the field starting (Thursday) night," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement."
The deal on a new collective-bargaining agreement is for eight years, a joint statement from the NFL and NFLRA said.
"Our board of directors has unanimously approved taking this proposed CBA to the membership for a ratification vote," said Scott Green, president of the NFLRA. "We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games."
The real refs, however, will not meet until Friday and Saturday to ratify the vote. That is seen to be a mere rubber-stamping.
According to a second league news release, if the officials vote in favour of the new deal, a clinic for officials will be held following the vote.
That would be to ensure that all are fully up to speed on the new 2012 rules, presumably.
The Cleveland Browns play at the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night, preceding a near full slate of games on Sunday and Monday. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have byes.
To allow real referees to work Thursday's game, the NFL announced in its second news release that Goodell has "temporarily lifted the lockout."
Before the last few days, the league and the NFLRA — which represents the 121 locked-out regular officials — had been deadlocked for months on key issues.
Numerous reports had said the structure of the refs' pensions was at the heart of the dispute. The league wanted to restructure the pensions of all existing officials, and the refs refused to agree.
The compromise that allowed a deal to get done was when the union agreed to extend existing officials' defined-benefit pension plan for five more years.
According to the NFL's release:
"The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season (or until the officials earns 20 years of service). The defined benefit plan will then be frozen."
Pensions then will switch to a defined contribution arrangement. That is, a 401(k) — more or less the U.S. equivalent of an RRSP.
New officials will receive the latter form of pension from the get-go.
Under the new deal, officials will see their salaries rise from an average of $149,000 last season to $205,000 by 2019.
Talks between the two sides resumed in person on the weekend in New York City, continued Monday by phone, and lasted 17.5 hours in person on Tuesday. Goodell took part Tuesday.
NFL Network's Albert Breer reported Wednesday that one of the key remaining issues was resolved by Wednesday morning. The NFL wanted 21 full-time officials added, the union didn't.
"Compromise agreed on: 21 guys in developmental program, work w/crews during week, promoted on merit," Breer tweeted.
At mid-day Wednesday, things looked promising — the first sniff that this thing might get done soon.
"It sure looks good," Tim Millis, the executive director of the NFL Referees Association, told USA Today's Jim Corbett on Wednesday. "(Both sides are) committed to getting it done.
"But there's no deal right now. There's not a deal that's hanging on the table for us to sign within minutes or an hour."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted: "I would not use (the word imminent), but talks are proceeding."
Indeed, caution was urged everywhere after mid-day reports on Wednesday from ESPN and others suggested a tentative deal was "just about finished with the agreement in principle."
Sports Illustrated's Peter King tweeted, "NFLRA negotiator Scott Green has notified officials that a deal is not imminent."
Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports reported that an NFL owner told him that while it is possible a deal will be done in time for the real refs to return this weekend, the owner "stopped well short of calling it probable."
"I would call things 'positive-but-precarious,'" the owner told Cole.
"There are still a lot of hard feelings on both sides, a lot of people still drawing lines in the sand, at least verbally. I could see something being done by (Thursday) or it could take another week."
One owner finally went public early Wednesday afternoon with comments about the bitter labour dispute.
Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, tweeted, "Let's be clear,when our NFL Fans talk,we listen..if you're unhappy,we're unhappy...we're here 2 serve U..everything we do is to please YOU!
"I'll pay $1,00,000,000.00 in Player costs in 7 years...it's not about greed or power mongering..new initiatives 2 improve officiating is key."
Improving officiating?! Getting the real refs back would be a big step toward improving officiating, now wouldn't it, Jim.
The players are as excited as anybody at the prospect of the real refs returning.
"You guys have seen it — we need them back," St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said Wednesday. "I hope it happens soon. I just don't think it's fair to the fans, I don't think it's fair to us as players to go out there and have to deal with that week in and week out. I really hope that they're as close as they say they are."
The real referees are fully trained, in shape, and ready to work this weekend's games, reports said.
Fitting, isn't it?, that the last call made by the replacements was the blown call that gave Seattle that controversial victory over Green Bay on Monday night.
Forty-eight hours later, the league struck a deal with the real refs.
The replacement refs are gone. And amen to that.