IRVING (AP) — NFL referees voted and approved a new eight-year deal with the league on Saturday. Now they all can get back to the business of calling games.
Referees approved the contract by a 112-5 vote, officially ending a lockout that led to a rising chorus of complaints from players, coaches, fans and politicians. The next stop for the refs who gathered in Irving, Texas, was the airport, where most were to hop on planes taking them straight to their Sunday game sites.
The deal came quickly after three weeks of escalating difficulties for league-hired replacement refs, culminating in a disputed touchdown call that decided Monday night's Packers-Seahawks game. With a tentative deal in place, league referees returned to cheers at Thursday night's game between Cleveland and Baltimore.
The tentative contract called for refs' salaries to 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' 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.
Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials to work year-round. 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.
Monday night's game ended in chaos after replacement refs called a touchdown catch for the Seahawks instead of a Packers interception. Many fans and commentators - and players in the league - thought the call was botched. Criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league kept escalating, and the labor dispute drew public comments from both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. By late Wednesday, both sides had a deal.
"It's all history now," head linesman Tom Stabile said Friday. "For us, it was a benefit. It may have been the straw that broke the camel's back."
Line judge Jeff Bergman said he could see Monday night's play coming as he watched at home. He noticed that players were starting to take advantage of replacement officials struggling to keep control of the game.
"The last play of the game was something that was going to happen sooner or later," Bergman said. "It gave us and the league an opportunity to get together and hammer out a deal that was going to get hammered out anyway."
Referee Ed Hochuli, who led weekly tests and conference calls for officials to stay sharp during the lockout, declined to say whether the replacements made the right call.
"You really don't want to see that," Hochuli said. "You don't want to see the controversy. You don't want to see teams lose games that they shouldn't have lost, if indeed that's what happened. We're not making a judgment on that."
Now, the refs have to get used to being fan favorites.
The officials that worked Thursday night's Ravens-Browns game were cheered from the moment they walked onto the field. The difference between the regular crew and replacements was clear. The officials kept the game in control, curtailing the chippy play and choppy pace that had marred the first three weeks of the regular season.
Officials on Friday said they were ready for applause - and ready for when it inevitably disappears.
"After the euphoria of the moment wears off, probably sometime early in the second quarter, it'll be back to regular NFL football mode," said referee Gene Steratore, who will head to Green Bay for Sunday's game, one week after Packers players ripped the replacements over Monday's disputed touchdown. "Players will be questioning our judgment, our ancestry. Coaches will be screaming at us. And it'll be life as back to normal on Sundays."