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Gary Lawless

TSN Senior Correspondent


Not long ago in an off-the-record conversation a general manager pointed at the officiating in the CFL as the No. 1 factor holding back the league.

“It’s not good enough. We have some excellent officials. But not enough. They need competition,” he argued. “They need to be pushed. It’s pro sports. Players, coaches and managers have to compete and strive to get better.

"Why should the referees be any different? They’re sheltered and protected in Canada. It’s not a formula for success and the league is suffering for it. I’ve been here a long time but there have been nights after games where I’ve considered leaving because of this. It can ruin a career. We just have to make it better.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge has been inundated with complaints over his first year of holding office in the CFL but none has been louder and more persistent than those focused on officiating. GMs and coaches have approached him and media peppered him on the subject during his state of the league address at the Grey Cup.

Orridge, it would appear, has been listening.

The CFL and NFL will announce a groundbreaking partnership on Friday which will see NFL-trained referees officiate pre- and regular-season games in the CFL. Refs from the CFL will attend NFL training camps and education sessions before working pre-season games in the NFL.

The program, named the NFL-CFL Officiating Development Program, is aimed at giving referees from both leagues the opportunity to improve their skills. But it is also the first step towards having U.S.-trained officials work in the CFL full-time.

The door is about to be opened and while current CFL officials will benefit from this education opportunity, they will also be forced to recognize the impending increase in competition for work.

NFL officials will work within CFL crews during pre-season and regular-season games prior to the NFL season.

They’ll take part in an accelerated education program, teaching them the differences in the games and the nuances of the Canadian league.

A group of CFL officials will be starting their NFL season at the league’s annual officiating clinic in late July.

“Any time our newer officials can get more reps on the field, during practices or games, that will make them better officials,” said NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino. “The collaboration with the CFL will certainly benefit us as we prepare for the 2016 season and we look forward to welcoming our CFL officiating counterparts to our development program later this spring.”

Several CFL officials will participate in the NFL’s Officiating Development Program, which will include working NFL mini-camps, training camps and pre-season games.

They will also take film study with veteran NFL officials and have their mechanics analyzed.

“This historic partnership gives officials in both leagues an opportunity to hone their craft and get better through shared development activities and more snaps at the pro level,” said CFL Senior Vice-President of Football Glen Johnson. “We’re excited that a group of our officials will actively participate in the NFL Development Program and now have a formal path forward to be considered as prospects in their league.”

NFL referees working CFL games will mostly be side and field judges to minimize the rules differences between the two leagues.

Previously, one of the major stumbling blocks for U.S.-born officials working in the CFL was it took them off the track to the NFL. But a development program between the two leagues could lead to officials graduating from the CFL to the NFL.

The widening of the talent pool from which the CFL can choose referees would create competition and raise the level of officiating on the field.

There are U.S.-born players, coaches, GMs and owners in the CFL. They adapt to the rules and the culture. Referees will prove they can do the same.