NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized Thursday to fans for having to use replacement officials during a lockout of regular refs. The impasse led to three weeks of questionable calls — and one that cost the Green Bay Packers a win.
Goodell made his comments during a conference call about 12 hours after the referees' union and league agreed on a tentative deal that will allow the regular officials to return beginning with Thursday night's Browns-Ravens game.
"Something like this, it's painful for everybody," Goodell said. "Most importantly, it's painful for fans. We're sorry to have to put fans through that.
"Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term."
The deal was struck two days after Seattle's chaotic last-second win over Green Bay in which the replacements missed a call.
Goodell said that, as a fan of the NFL, he'd never want to see a game marred by officiating as Monday's clearly was.
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"You never want to see a game end like that," he said. "You always want to try to avoid those controversial plays -- especially at the end of the game.
"Anytime you have these controversies, they stay with us. There are a lot of calls that are looked back in history. That's a part of sports. That's a part of history. … I know the great Packer fans -- as frustrating and disappointed as they are in the outcome -- they also understand that's something that's happened for decades."
After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration across the league and among its fans — the NFL and the officials' union announced at midnight Thursday that a tentative eight-year agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June.
"We were in intensive negotiations the last 10 days," Goodell said. "This was the right thing for the game. This was the right thing to do. Get the officials back on the field, get this thing concluded. That's what everyone's objective was."
NFL Referees Association President Scott Green said, "We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games,"
The players' union is happy to have them.
"Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees," the NFLPA said in a statement Thursday. "We welcome our fellow union members back on our field."
Plenty of players chimed in, too.
"Never thought I would be excited for the refs to come back to work but it's about time it was definitely necessary!" Cleveland return specialist Josh Cribbs tweeted Thursday morning.
Added Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe: "It was a noble experiment, but I think ultimately a failed experiment, from what we've seen. It'll be good not to have to worry about that when we're on the field. It's good that it won't be a distraction anymore."
Shortly after the news broke, Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller tweeted, "Welcome back REFS."
The tentative deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members. They plan to vote Friday and Saturday 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 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 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.