NFL players and fans have reacted with relief to an agreement ending the league's bitter dispute with referees that had disrupted the start of the season with a flood of embarrassing bad calls by hastily drafted in replacements.
The NFL's regular referees had been locked out by the league after failing to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, especially over the issue of pension payments.
Football is the nation's most popular sport and also one of the most lucrative, and there had been a fear that the ongoing bad calls could have damaged the sport's reputation and finances alike.
"Welcome back," said Tennessee Titans' backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on his Twitter page. Even the White House got in on the action. Jay Carney, President Barack Obama's official spokesman, said: "The president's very pleased that the two sides have come together. It is a great day for America."
The fight disrupted the start of the 2012-2013 season with a series of gaffes by the inexperienced replacement referees that outraged fans, sports commentators and team managers, several of whom have recently had high-profile spats with officials.
But the trouble really reached boiling point on Monday night when a game-winning last-second touchdown was wrongly awarded to the Seattle Seahawks as they battled with the Green Bay Packers.
That call sparked widespread outrage and tabloid front pages that labelled it as one of the worst refereeing decisions in the sport's history. The New York Post newspaper even ran a cartoon showing the replacement referees as being blind, complete with guide dogs and canes.
But in the wake of the furore the two sides have now settled on a new eight year deal that gives officials higher salaries and improved retirement benefits.
The regular officials will now return to the field beginning on Thursday night at a game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns, ahead of a vote on Saturday by the referees union that is expected to officially ratify the deal.
In a joint statement with the NFL Referees Association, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the deal would bring stability back to the game. "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," Goodell said. "Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs."
The move will begin the process of rebuilding the league's image. The replacement referees, drawn from the ranks of lower division college, high school and semi-professional football, were clearly no match for the regular, unionised, referees. Some of the bad calls they made led to open disputes with team managers. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined for making contact with a referee on Sunday, while Denver Broncos coach John Fox and the team's defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, were also fined for publicly criticising officials following a loss.
The main bone of contention in the dispute had been pensions. The deal now assures current referees that their pension plans will continue, but new officials brought into the system will instead get a 401(k) retirement savings plan. That will allow the NFL to gradually wither away the pension scheme as current officials retire or otherwise leave the sport.
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