Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bridging the gap and humanizing football officials

Jim Daley hasn’t always seen eye to eye when it comes to officiating. But the former Canadian Football League head coach has been touring the country in his new role (CFL Senior Advisor Officiating and Football Operations) alongside the CFL Director of Officiating George Black. It’s a new open-door policy the league has instigated to dispel the “we/they” aspect of team football personnel and officials. Daley and Black are meeting with every team’s coaches and media to talk about the officials’ reality compared to coaches’ expectations, and to simplify the rules of the game and provide clarity on new rules going into effect for the 2007 CFL season.

It all boils down to respect and wearing each others’ cleats.

“It’s a whole different world on the other side,” admits Daley. His first role of responsibility is to change the rulebook wording. A cleanly worded explanation erases shades of grey and makes it easier for coaches to coach their players not to get a flag.

One of the exercises Daley and Black have used in their meetings is to show a video of a play and let the coaches be the official. It’s been a proactive approach that has helped teams understand the officials’ role better and eliminate confusion on some of the calls.

A lot has changed in the game, mainly the use of a seven-man crew. The same type of crew is being used at the elite amateur levels to ensure a smoother transition for those officials fortunate enough to make the transition to pro. The extra man allows them to see the field better. The seven-man crew consists of referee, head linesman, umpire, line judge, side judge, field judge, and back judge.

Every year on the eve of pre-season, officials are put through a fitness test and a mechanics exam. They’re shown a live kick-off play to review the responsibilities. Then they assess the actual play to see if the crew did their job.

“We would be critically concerned about an official that didn’t get 90 percent,” says Black.

Making it as an official doesn’t mean you get to stay in the league and rest on your laurels. There is an evaluation process for officials. The checklist is:

Signals and communications
Penalty calls
“No calls”
Possession plays
Ball spotting
Position and coverage
Application of rules and penalties

Becoming a CFL official isn’t, by any stretch, all glitter and glamour. They only make between $550 and $850 per game, plus per diem, and there is only one game a week. It’s not a full-time job. They do it purely for the love of the game, but along with the job is constant, eternal abuse and second-guessing by fans, coaches, players, and media.

Potential prospects are scouted in the elite amateur ranks, mainly CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). There are four levels of certification and the biggest challenge is attracting younger individuals into the position. About 14 new officials were brought into the league in the last two seasons. The jump to pro is perhaps higher than it is for a player.

One of the more interesting statistics is that officials don’t come out of the football playing level. Although a former player would help bridge the gap between the officials association and league personnel a lot faster and perhaps entice new recruits.

Every year, the turnover of league coaches presents a new challenge to officials. It means starting over on the education process. So Daley and Black will likely keep taking their show on the road in years to come.


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