Regular refs to work Thursday game after agreement with NFL

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NEW YORK —  The NFL’s regular officiating crews are back, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has apologized to the fans who fretted about the replacements the last three weeks.

After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration across the league — 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. The regular refs’ return couldn’t have come soon enough for many players, coaches and fans.

“Obviously when you go through something like this, it’s painful for everybody,” Goodell said on a conference call about 12 hours after the deal was struck. “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 follows Seattle’s chaotic last-second win over Green Bay on Monday night in which the replacement officials struggled. Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday, said regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game at Baltimore on Thursday night.

The seven-man crew working the game is led by referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran.

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

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.

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