Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @StevePoliti
(CNN) -- The referees walked onto the field at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Thursday night before the Ravens faced the Cleveland Browns and heard the strangest thing: Cheers.
Not just a few of them, either. They heard a standing ovation, long and loud from the early arriving fans, enough so that head referee Gene Steratore tipped his cap to the appreciative crowd like a conquering hometown hero.
If you hadn't followed the developments over the previous three weeks, you would've thought the world had gone mad. If you did follow them -- and, if you're a football fan, how could you not? -- you probably felt the urge to stand in your living room and cheer right along with them.
The real referees are back. The long national nightmare with replacement officials -- the unqualified rejects from the Lingerie League or Division 3 college games -- ended this week, but not before creating an odd phenomena among sports fans from coast to coast.
Refs were getting the love -- from football fans, from current and former players, and even from President Obama. When the president tweeted that he wanted the real referees back on the field, it was only a matter of time before it happened -- and one more sign that there was a real appreciation for the professionals.
"It is unfortunate that the NFL, America's game, has been reduced to what it is," Justin Tuck, the thoughtful defensive lineman for the New York Giants, said before the lockout was settled. "I think a lot of people are looking at it as a joke, honestly. As a fan, you pay all this money and you go PSLs and ... games are just being tossed up like as if you were throwing dice on a craps table."
The lockout of the regular referees ended on Wednesday when their union agreed to an eight-year deal with the NFL, ending a dispute that centered mostly on retirement benefits and compensation.
Before it ended, there were a few lessons for NFL fans:
1. Their collective outrage can make a difference.
And the outrage was from coast to coast. It started to build during the second week of the season, when it became clear that games had more borderline penalties and less flow with the replacement officials, but it reached a crescendo during the Monday night broadcast this week.
An already choppy game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers came down to one final play. A Hail Mary pass from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson heaved into the end zone that appeared to be intercepted by Packers safety M.D. Jennings. But Seahawks receiver Golden Tate grabbed it at the last second, and when the two players fell to the ground, the two referees watching looked at each other before making a ruling.
One of them waved his arms to signify an interception. The other lifted his arms to signify a touchdown. And, when the refs eventually ruled that it was a touchdown (missing a blatant offensive pass interference call before the play), a national firestorm had begun.
Twitter recorded 56,000 tweets per minute during the game -- or nearly the same as Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention -- and most of them angry. With one play, the Seahawks had stolen a 14-12 victory and as much as $250 million had moved from one side of the ledger to the other because of the betting line, according to Vegas experts.
John Mara, the influential co-owner of the Giants, watched the replay of the "Fail Mary," as it became known, on Tuesday morning and thought, "How did this happen?" He wasn't directly involved in the negotiations between the league and the referees' union, but he said the talks intensified.
"I felt like we were moving toward a contract even before Monday night, but I'm not sure we would have gotten it done this week," Mara said. "I think the game sped up the process -- on both sides.
"For the owners, or at least from my point of view, it was the final straw because I started to see it would be very difficult for replacement refs to do their jobs the following weekend."
2. Even the NFL isn't immune to criticism.
The NFL has enjoyed an unprecedented run as the dominant sports league in this country, and that was never in doubt even during the lockout. Ratings were still sky high for the games, and the outrage over the replacement officials was such a dominant story that it confirmed the league's popularity more than it threatened it.
The league thought there wouldn't be much sympathy for the referees -- they are, after all, an unpopular group. But the owners discovered that people cared too much about the sport to see it compromised -- especially the ones who are counting on a fair game when they bet on the outcome.
Finally, when the lockout ended, Commissioner Roger Goodell had no choice but to apologize to the fans.
"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."
3. Most of all: Refs aren't so bad after all.
It was amazing, really. Referees, the most universally disliked group of people in America, became quite popular.
Players all but begged for them to return. Fans railed against the NFL owners and Goodell for locking them out in the first place. Ed Hochuli, perhaps the most identifiable referee thanks to his impressive biceps, became a trending topic on Twitter.
It was Hochuli who, in an attempt to keep he and his fellow refs fresh during the lockout, would hold conference calls every Tuesday night where they would discuss how hypothetical situations are enforced. One of those calls, of course, dealt with simultaneous possession.
There likely will be some rust to shake off, but even a few mistakes won't change this: Finally, there seems to be a national acceptance that it takes a great deal of experience, knowledge and poise to officiate games in this complicated and brutal sport.
"The pressure on the replacement refs was becoming too much for them, and all of the missed and blown calls were messing with the integrity of the game," Giants linebacker Michael Boley said. "I'm not saying the real refs will get every call right, but I think they will do a better job. Good to have them back."
Of course, nobody -- including the returning refs -- expected it to last very long. They might have gotten that standing ovation before the game, but less than three minutes into the game in Baltimore, fans booed when a call went against the hometown Ravens.
Which, of course, was exactly how it should be.