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NFL will employ up to 24 full-time referees for 2017 and beyond

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Full-time jobs mean big pay raises for the men in stripes.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In an effort to promote a higher-quality, more consistent on-field product, the NFL will promote a handful of its referees from part-time to full-time status. The change will start in 2017 and be phased in over several years as the league’s top officials transition away from their day jobs and into an elevated role in professional football.

The NFL Referees Association has approved a plan to establish up 24 full-time officials, the league announced Wednesday. The selection of these full-time referees will begin immediately. The full-time officials will be chosen from the existing pool of 124, and candidates who want to make that transition will be allowed to apply for consideration.

“We believe this is a great development for NFL officiating overall and ultimately the quality of our game,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, said of the initiative.

The NFLRA’s president, Scott Green, agreed.

“NFL officials are always looking to improve, and we believe that additional time, particularly in the preseason, will be positive.” Green said.

The NFL has had the capacity to bring its refs into the fold full time since the 2012 labor agreement, but issues concerning costs and how to lure the best officials prevented its implementation until now. Now, it will be up to the league to create a competitive compensation package and ensure its can retain its more valued flag-throwers.

Commissioner Roger Goodell tipped the league’s hand on hiring full-time officials back in March.

“The answer is yes, we are going to do it," Goodell told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King when asked about the possibility of having full-time officials. "It’s something we negotiated for with the officials association. We feel confident it is worth going forward and seeing what the impact is … We believe this can add more consistency. You still are going to have 17 referees who are not in here every week, but if they are in here over some period of time, they will get more consistency and they will be able to understand what everybody is doing."

The move will force the league’s top referees to choose between their careers and the lucrative side job the NFL provides. Officials’ day jobs range from dairy farmer to lawyer, leaving a tough decision for many. Becoming full-time will also make them NFL employees, thereby negating their association with the NFL Referees Association — the union that protects the league’s umpires and side judges.

But the officials will be able to keep another job — just not full time, according to Breer.

But the shift also makes sense. The NFL’s officials are a vital part of the game, and limiting them to part-time status minimizes their importance to the league. Saints head coach Sean Payton called the NFL’s prior working arrangement “madness,” suggesting full-time refs would have greater opportunities to study the rules, prepare for games, and minimize mistakes on the field.