NFL, officials reach agreement, back on job tonight

Well, that didn’t take long. Just three days after getting embarrassed on its biggest weekly stage, the NFL found a quick route to an agreement with the officials it had locked out since the beginning of the season. The men in stripes will return tonight for the Browns-Ravens game in Baltimore, which will be televised on the league’s own cable channel:

After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration among coaches, players and fans — the NFL and the referees’ union announced at midnight ET Thursday that a tentative agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday, said the regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game in Baltimore.

Interestingly, it looks as though the league won on its two major issues, establishing a taxi squad of officials to replace low-performing personnel, and controlling pension costs. They had to kick in more money in salaries to get those concessions, but the league got its cost containment and its flexibility on staffing (emphases mine):

The agreement hinged on working out salary, pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. Tentatively, it 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 proposal, the current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 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 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.

The switch from a defined-benefit to defined-contribution system will make it much easier for the league to control costs over the next several decades. Officials got a big salary boost and a long contract — eight years, their longest ever — but the NFL now has what it wanted in control of costs and officiating. It makes one wonder why the officials held out as long as they did, although the salary bump is pretty impressive, with an average increase of $56,000 per year over seven years.

The best news is that we can now have qualified officials on the field tonight for the Browns-Ravens game, which probably hurts the Browns most. What’s the over-under on when it will become acceptable to criticize the officiating without referring to the improvement over what preceded it this season? I’ll set it at …. the two-minute warning of tonight’s first half.

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