Veteran NFL officials back; commissioner Goodell apologizes
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BALTIMORE -- About an hour before kickoff, referee Gene Steratore and his seven-man crew walked on the field in their familiar striped shirts and heard cheers from the early arrivals.
A few minutes later, Steratore was shaking hands with Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur near midfield and getting a hug from Baltimore Ravens face-of-the-franchise Ray Lewis at the 30-yard line.
When they walked on the field they received a standing ovation and doffed their caps to the crowd.
Yes, the real refs are back. Official harmony is restored to the NFL.
"You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name," Steratore, a 10-year league veteran, told The Associated Press about an hour before kickoff. "This will be a little different, but I don't expect it to last too long. And that's the goal -- is that we can let them get through that portion of this. It's happy to be back, it's happy to be appreciated. But then as soon as the game starts, it's happy to disappear again and let the entertainers entertain."
Steratore donned his No. 114 referee's uniform for the first game of Week 4 after three weeks of replacement officials created moments of chaos throughout the league. For a change, everyone sides was happy to see the familiar faces they usually love to boo.
A lockout of the league's regular officials ended late Wednesday, two days after a disputed touchdown catch on the last play of "Monday Night Football" brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch nationwide.
"Obviously when you go through something like this it is painful for everybody," said commissioner Roger Goodell. "Most important, it is painful for our fans. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game."
The deal is only tentative -- it must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members in a vote scheduled for today and Saturday in Dallas -- but both sides nevertheless went forward with the plan to have the regulars back for Thursday's game.
"Very elated to be back," Steratore said. "It feels like being back home."
The lockout was ended after marathon negotiations produced an eight-year agreement to end the lockout that began in June.
"Those guys might mess up every now and then, but we can live with that happening with professional guys out there," Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson said.
Goodell acknowledged "you're always worried" about the perception of the league.
"Obviously, this has gotten a lot of attention," he said. "It hasn't been positive, and it's something that you have to fight through and get to the long term. ... We always are going to have to work harder to make sure we get people's trust and confidence in us."
The agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees. Goodell said the NFL's offer to increase the deal's length from five to eight years spurred some concessions from the officials.
The tentative pact calls for their salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in '13, rising to $205,000 by '19. The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the '16 season or until the official earns 20 years of service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen. Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in '17, through a defined contribution arrangement.
Beginning with the '13 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.
First Published September 28, 2012 12:00 am