American football: NFL referees return after striking deal

THE NFL’s regular referees are back and their return couldn’t have come soon enough for many players, coaches and fans after three weeks of chaos and disputed calls with replacement officials.

After two days of marathon negotiations – and mounting frustration throughout the league – the NFL and the officials’ union announced that a tentative eight-year agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June. The deal came on the heels of the Seattle Seahawks’ chaotic last-second win over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night in which the replacement officials struggled.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the bargaining table on Tuesday and Wednesday, said the regular officials would officiate the Browns-Ravens game which was due to take place at Baltimore last night.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week’s games,” NFL Referees Association president Scott Green said.

And plenty of players echoed that sentiment. “Welcome back REFS,” Buffalo Bills running back CJ Spiller tweeted shortly after the news broke.

The tentative deal must be ratified by 51 per cent of the union’s 121 members. They plan to vote today and tomorrow in Dallas.

For the Packers, Redskins, Lions and other teams who voiced their displeasure with calls that might have swayed games, the agreement doesn’t change their win/loss records. But after having replacements for the first three weeks, triggering a wave of outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck probably spoke for his peers by simply echoing Spiller: “Welcome back.” 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 (£92,000) a year in 2011 to $173,000 (£106,000) in 2013, rising to $205,000 (£126,000) by 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.

“As you know, this has to be ratified and we know very little about it, but we’re excited to be back. And ready,” said referee Ed Hochuli. “And I think that’s the most important message – that we’re ready.”

After Seattle’s 14-12 victory against the Packers, the replacement, lower-level referees’ ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew mounting criticism, with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden calling their work “tragic and comical”.

The Seahawks beat Green Bay with a pass into the endzone on the final play. Packers safety MD Jennings had both hands on the ball in the air but, when he fell to the ground in a scrum, both Jennings and Seahawks receiver Golden Tate had their arms on the ball.

The closest official to the play, at the back of the endzone, signalled for the clock to stop, while another official at the sideline ran in and then 
signalled touchdown.

The NFL said in a statement on Tuesday that the touchdown pass should not have been overturned – but acknowledged Tate should have been penalised for 
offensive pass interference 
before the catch.

The league also said there was no “indisputable visual evidence” to reverse the call made on the field.

That drew even louder howls of disbelief. “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but you have to have competent people,” Carolina receiver Steve Smith said. “And if you’re incompetent, get them out of there.”