After handing the Edmonton Eskimos a closely-fought East Semifinal win against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the league announced today – yet again – that the CFL officials in the game absolutely sucked.
A quick summary: in the latest game, Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros suffered an uncalled late hit from Edmonton Eskimos defenceman (and repeat offender) Odell Willis. On the same play, Hamilton was called for a holding penalty. The holding penalty, the league now admits, was bogus. The uncalled roughing the passer penalty, despite being challenged by Ticats coach Kent Austin, stood, but the league now admits that the replay officials should have called it.
In another recent game against the Ottawa Redblacks, an Ottawa player recovered a fumble late in the game. After days of deliberation, the league admitted that in fact Hamilton recovered the fumble, and should have been awarded the ball, most probably leading to a Ticats win (securing them first place in the division).
For those who are paying attention – if there is indeed anyone left – that makes two crucial Hamilton games handed to their opposition by officiating mistakes. And it’s not like the league has left anything open to interpretation, either. CFL vice president of football Glen Johnson unequivocally stated that the calls the officials made – in the Ticats’ opponent’s favour, each time – were wrong.
So what are fans supposed to do with that?
Well, the games can’t be replayed. In the no-backsies world of professional sport, we have to accept the result at the final whistle. And you’ll find that Hamilton fans are at peace with that. They know they’ve been screwed by the league many, many times.
There are the big snubs, like the lack of a Grey Cup game for the foreseeable future. Although the new Tim Hortons Field was fully completed in 2015, they stand no chance of being awarded a Grey Cup until at least 2019. (And Toronto has hosted the Cup in 2007, 2012, and 2016, in a city whose home team would barely fill the stands at Lamport stadium.)
There are the little snubs, too. Hamilton hasn’t had a televised preseason game in years. They also had their much-loved Labour Day Classic (against their nemeses, the Toronto Argonauts) removed from the schedule in 2011 and 2013.
But there’s a bigger issue at play here: one of trust.
How can CFL fans – not only in Hamilton, but across the league – trust their officials? And by extension, how can they trust the games they watch every week?
Yes, it’s important that the league has come out and admitted their mistakes. It does make a difference. We don’t have to shake our heads in bewilderment at the bizarre calls, wondering how the league could possibly miss what the rest of us see plainly.
But at some point, the league has to show some progress. They have to show they understand the importance of their own referees, their effect on how the games play out. Admitting their wrong calls is only the first step. And the next step has yet to be taken.
We all know that a football game is a complex affair. Twenty-four players on two (usually) closely-matched teams, looking for any edge they can get. Complex movement in many directions. A dense rulebook. Limited resources. There’s a human factor involved, and no one expects the refs to get every call right, every time.
But there are safeguards in place. There are multiple referees on the field, and only one ball – they know where to focus their attention. The referees are well-trained and experienced. The league (apparently) reviews every call with league officials, soon after every game. There is a video replay system to ensure that game-tipping calls are made correctly.
And in the Eastern Semi-Final this year, all those systems failed.
What’s at stake here? It’s not just a football game. It’s not just a team’s destiny. It’s not just season ticket subscriptions, or merchandise revenues, or television viewing share.
If fans can’t trust the officials to call plays consistently; if they can’t trust their own video review system to back up their officials’ calls effectively; if they can’t trust the league to oversee their officials legitimately; then what’s left?
What’s left might as well be the WWE, for all it’s worth. Because the fans in the stands and at home repeatedly see teams – never mind the same team, in two key games – screwed out of a winning position with a series of bad calls, then they’re no longer watching sport. They’re watching a farce.
In the last three decades, CFL fans have seen the lowest of the low points that the league could possibly offer. Bizarre scheduling. The ill-fated USA expansion, which saw a thirst for franchise money outstrip the standards for a quality product on the field. And worst of all, a home game blackout policy that, in the 1970s and 1980s, severed generations-long links between fans and their home teams.
Fans have borne this and much more. They can always shake their heads at the top brass. No one pretends to know or understand what the suits in the league office are thinking.
But in the end, the CFL product is what’s on the field. At the final whistle, the score favours the better team.
And if the fans can’t trust that, then all is lost.