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Deal reached; real refs to return to NFL

NEW YORK -- The NFL's regular referees will be back on the field starting Thursday after the league and refs' union broke a labor impasse late Wednesday.

After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration among coaches, players and fans — the NFL and the referees' union announced 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 Cleveland Browns game at the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday.

“Welcome back REFS,” Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller tweeted shortly after the news broke.

The replacements worked the first three weeks of games, triggering a wave of outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season. After a missed call cost the Green Bay Packers a win on a chaotic final play at Seattle on Monday night, the two sides really got serious.

“We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games,” referees' union president Scott Green said.

The tentative eight-year deal is the longest involving on-field officials in NHL history and was reached with the assistance of two federal mediators. It must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members, who plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.

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 US$149,000 a year in 2011 to US$173,000 in 2013, rising to US$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' 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 US$18,000 per official and increase to more than US$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.

“As you know, this has to be ratified and we know very little about it, but we're excited to be back. And ready,” referee Ed Hochuli told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “And I think that's the most important message — that we're ready.”

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