CFL-NFL partnership not the solution to officiating issues (but a step forward nonetheless)

An American invasion is not the silver bullet for CFL officiating.

But fans frustrated by the state of the Canadian game – particularly the blown calls and the sheer number of flags being thrown these days – should nonetheless look at Friday’s announcement of a joint development program for officials in both the CFL and NFL as yet another step in the northern league’s ongoing attempt to improve the state of affairs.

“This is not ‘OK, officiating is fixed,'” said CFL vice president Glen Johnson, himself a former referee. “This is part of a long term program to make officiating better.”

The most notable element of the new arrangement will see NFL officials working pre-season and regular season CFL games starting this season. And while there is the perception in some quarters that American officials are better than their Canadian counterparts, it’s unlikely that one Yank on a crew of seven is going to make any appreciable difference.

In reality, an American presence on the Canadian field was the price the CFL had to pay in the prid-pro-quo with the NFL. Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has also taken some heat the last few seasons and getting his guys more live-action training opportunities was the main attraction for the U.S. league.

For the CFL, the real benefit comes in being able to send Canadian officials to the U.S. for both training – the NFL has much more extensive and well-funded program in that regard – and experience. Both leagues need reps: the NFL officials will get them in-game at the CFL level, while the CFL officials will work American training camps.

“The biggest challenge both league have is that we can’t practice and we just need more pro snaps. So it became a question of how do we get that?” Johnson said “Our guys won’t be getting game snaps but they are the next closest thing.”

If there’s a downside, it’s that CFL officiating is no longer exclusively the domain of homegrown officials. That said, Americans worked in the CFL during the U.S. expansion period of the 1990s – one of them, Bill Vinovich, was the referee in last year’s Super Bowl – and, as part of the new deal, Canadians officials will scouted and considered for NFL jobs.

“We’ve never had a formal pipeline with them scouting us or considering our guys as prospects,” Johnson said. “It gives our guys the opportunity to potentially go work in the NFL and I think they’re pretty excited about that.”

Johnson has overseen a number of initiatives in his two-plus years as the head of CFL officiating, including the expanded use of video review, the addition of second eye-in-the-sky replay official and improved on-field communication. He has been candid about the challenges the league is facing and sees this as just another step to improving the league’s credibility.

“If we don’t try new things, we’re just going to sit here and ruminate on how to make things better,” Johnson said. “This is a practical approach to getting us better.”

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