BALTIMORE For a change, the NFL uniform at the center of attention contained three digits.
Referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran, donned his No. 114 and strode onto the field to cheers Thursday night for the game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, signaling once and for all that the real officials are back.
“You know we always pride ourselves in being a face without a name,” Steratore told The Associated Press about an hour before kickoff. “This will be a little different, but I don’t expect it to last too long. … It’s happy to be back, it’s happy to be appreciated. But then as soon as the game starts, it’s happy to disappear again and let the entertainers entertain.”
Steratore and a veteran seven-man crew worked the Week 4 opener after three weeks of replacement officials. For a change, everyone on all sides was happy to see the familiar faces in stripes.
A lockout of the league’s regular officials ended late Wednesday, two days after a disputed touchdown catch on the last play of “Monday Night Football” brought debate over the use of the replacements to a fevered pitch. The Seattle Seahawks were awarded the score – and a 14-12 win – against Green Bay, a result NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged “may have pushed the parties further along” in the talks.
“Obviously when you go through something like this it is painful for everybody,” Goodell said. “Most importantly, it is painful for our fans. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game.”
The deal must be ratified by at least 51 percent of the union’s 121 members in a vote scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Dallas – but both sides nevertheless went forward with the plan to have the regulars back Thursday.
So Steratore made the 3 1/2-hour drive Thursday morning from his home in the Pittsburgh area. Usually he is in place the day before a game, but none of his regular pregame meetings had to be changed because the Browns-Ravens game was at night.
“Very elated to be back,” he said. “It feels like being back home.”
Steratore also was fully aware he would be booed the first time he makes a questionable call – just like always.
“Without a question,” he said. “I’ve been yelled at by my own children many times, so this won’t be any different.”
Marathon negotiations produced an eight-year agreement to end the lockout that began in June.
“Those guys might mess up every now and then, but we can live with that happening with professional guys out there,” Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson said.
Goodell acknowledged “you’re always worried” about the perception of the league.
“Obviously, this has gotten a lot of attention,” he said. “It hasn’t been positive, and it’s something that you have to fight through and get to the long term.”
The agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. Goodell said the NFL’s offer to increase the deal’s length from five to eight years spurred some concessions from the officials.
The tentative pact 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. 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 then will be frozen. Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement.
Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of full-time officials to work year round, including on the field. The NFL also will be able to retain additional officials for training and development.
The NFL players’ union, which had protested that using replacements jeopardized health and safety, heartily welcomed back the regular officials.
“Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees,” its statement said.
The dispute even made its way to the campaign trail.
“The president’s very pleased that the two sides have come together,” said Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s spokesman