Regular NFL Refs Will Be Back On The Job Thursday

A tentative contract agreement has been reached between the National Football League and the referees' union. The impasse began in June when the NFL locked out the officials and used replacement referees.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are pleased to announce this morning that NPR has ended its lockout of Mike Pesca. The network reached a deal with our sports correspondent after his replacement repeatedly confused adjectives with adverbs. OK, that's a joke, but in reality the NFL reached a deal with referees after the replacements made a series of brutally criticized calls. Mike Pesca has been following developments.

Mike, good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: And that was a goodly decision. Oh, wait a minute. I've done it too.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Goodly decision? OK. Come on, come on. Get it straight. Get it straight. What changed?

PESCA: I'll tell you what changed. I'm going to list a few facts, but first I want to provide a framework. In a regular factory shutdown or even when sports leagues are shut out, owners and players, workers and owners, have a way to calculate the damage. We've lost this many paychecks. If we continue our strike or if we continue the lockout, we're never going to get it back. That sort of thing.

So with the NFL lockout of officials there was no real way to do that. The NFL had this idea that it's not hurting the bottom line. And perhaps it wasn't. So the facts that changed were that the regular - sorry - the replacement officials were awful. The Monday night football game ended with many experts calling it the worst call on the last play of the game that they had ever seen.

And the result of this is, first of all, my friend who never follows football said to me on Tuesday, why is everyone tweeting about a bad call? I thought football was played on Sunday. This is the level that those bad calls had penetrated into the national conversation.

INSKEEP: Even people who paid no attention...

PESCA: People who go out of their way not to pay attention. And the owners, who maybe they couldn't say that their pocketbook was getting hurt, were feeling, I would call it, some psychic fallout, some psychological fallout. They own these teams to make money but also because they enjoy it and their place in the community. And I've got to think that they were starting to feel bad about the effects of the lockout. Cut to two days after that terrible decision. We have a deal in place.

INSKEEP: OK. I was having a conversation with a guy the other day who just said this is not about very much money in NFL terms. Someone had to step up and write a check. Is that what the owners ultimately have done?

PESCA: Yeah. It wasn't really - it was never really about salary. But I will say that because of the agreement, the NFL refs, who are part time workers, go from an average salary of $149,000 this year to $173,000 next year. That's a nice raise. Also the pension that was very much in dispute, the workers pretty much won that. What it's going to be is a regular pension for the next few years and then they will phase it out to 401k. That's the way a lot of businesses are going. So there were a lot of monetary wins by the officials.

There's also an issue of there will now be a seven official taxi squad, let's call it, where officials can be phased in to the 121 man NFL union. I have to say, some of these little details would be the sort of things that if the negotiations were smooth and there was no lockout would hardly even be reported except on the deep pages of the sports page.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Do I even want to ask what a taxi squad is?

PESCA: Taxi. Yeah, it's kind of a bunch of replacement guys who could take the real guy's job one day.

INSKEEP: Oh, oh, gosh. OK. So who wins and loses here, very briefly?

PESCA: We had three weeks of bad football, or at least bad officiating. But it was fun to watch, right? So that was maybe some entertainment value. The NFL goes back to being one of the most successful businesses in America. They march their way onto the eventuality of getting $10 billion in revenue.

And the 121 members of the NFLRA, the referees association, who will be in Dallas to ratify this deal - and we should say the game played tonight, Baltimore versus Cleveland, that's going to have real officials too. So they win too. And I would say the NFL refs got mostly what they wanted.

INSKEEP: So they're back on the job immediately. They got in position to do that?

PESCA: They'll be there tonight.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's sports correspondent Mike Pesca, still on the job.

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