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Regular officials to work tonight

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NEW YORK—So long, replacement refs. The NFL’s regular crews will be back on the field starting tonight.

After two days of marathon negotiations, and mounting frustration among coaches, players, and fans, the NFL and the referees’ union announced at midnight 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 at Baltimore.

“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 NFL 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 tomorrow 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 $149,000 (U.S.) 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’ service.

It then will be frozen.

“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.”

Replacement refs aren’t new to the NFL. They worked the first week of games in 2001 before a deal was reached.

But those officials came from the highest level of college football; the current replacements do not.

Their ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew mounting criticism through Week 3, climaxing last weekend when ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called their work “tragic and comical.”

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