By Lateef Mungin
(CNN) — The short and painful era of replacement referees is over after the National Football League struck a deal with the union that represents the league’s referees late Wednesday night.
“Our officials will be back on the field starting tomorrow night,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement.”
Along with bringing the real refs back for Thursday’s night game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns, the deal ends an embarrassing stage for the NFL.
The league has used replacement officials for the first three weeks of the regular season, as well as the pre-season. A series of bad decisions have become fodder for jokes and criticism, highlighted by a game-deciding call Monday night between Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.
The call that gave the game to the Seahawks was criticized by fans, players and even politicians.
The Seahawks won 14-12 after replacement officials, standing in for locked-out NFL regulars, gave possession of a disputed ball to Seattle receiver Golden Tate. In what’s already become a well-traveled and widely mocked image, two officials in the end zone gave competing signals: one indicating a touchdown, the other an interception.
Criticism, that had been simmering since preseason, boiled over after that call.
“Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs,” Packers guard T.J. Lang tweeted after the game ended, one in a series of profanity-laced tweets accusing the officials of taking the game from his team.
Even the president got into the act Monday, tweeting on his campaign’s Twitter account. “NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs’ lockout is settled soon,” Barack Obama said.
The deal will last eight years and includes details about officials’ pensions and retirement benefits and adds a pay bump from $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013. The pay will rise to $205,000 by 2019.
The agreement will also allow the NFL to hire some officials on a year-round basis and hire additional officials so they can be trained. “This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating,” Goddell said.
CNN’s Javi Morgado and Joseph Miller contributed to this report.
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