Explaining CFL roster rules and what they mean for Global athletes

It has been said that managing a Canadian Football League roster is the toughest job in pro sports. While the NFL operates quite simply with the best athletes in the world at their disposal, a CFL team is a delicate and complex balance that requires filling a number of different roster criteria.

That is true even under ideal circumstances, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the league’s 2020 season has added even more wrinkles as they return to the field in 2021. Friday marked the CFL’s roster cutdown deadline and for those outside of North America trying to understand how athletes from their country fit on to the teams, a quick overview of the rules is essential.

A CFL active roster is made up of 45 players, down from 46 pre-COVID. On game day, a team is allowed to dress 44 of those players but may choose to dress 43. The remaining player or two is scratched as a reserve. However, the make-up of a roster is more complex than that.

The CFL operates under a ratio system, not unlike many international leagues, that dictates the number of Canadian players, known as Nationals, which every team must dress. There are three other types of player designations on gameday: Americans, Globals, and Quarterbacks, for whom passport doesn’t matter in most circumstances.

This season, that 44-man gameday roster must include a minimum of one Global player, someone hailing from outside the US or Canada, who does not have US citizenship, and doesn’t qualify as a National through other means (for example, if their parent is a Canadian citizen). The rest of the roster includes a minimum of 20 Nationals, a maximum of 20 Americans, and two Quarterbacks. Should you include a third quarterback on your roster, their passport status must adhere to the ratio.

Additionally, CFL teams declare starters before each game and 7 of your 24 starters (Canadian football plays 12 men aside) must be Nationals. This number cannot change throughout the game, so if you declare 3 Canadian starters on defense, you must always have 3 Canadians on the field for defensive series.

From a Global perspective, these designations are extremely important not only because they guarantee one player a spot on the gameday roster, but for the purpose of playtime. A Global player can only take the place of an American on the field and in the event that a team decides to dress more than their required quota of one Global athlete, they must beat an American for that roster spot. Right now, three CFL teams look poised to have that happen.

In addition to the active roster, CFL teams carry a practice roster of players who do not dress for games, just like NFL teams. A standard practice squad contains 10 players, with its own ratio of Canadians to Americans, however, a team can be granted up to three bonus practice roster spots as long as those three players are Globals. This means a maximum practice roster size is 13, with most teams carrying several international athletes.

Players on the practice squad can be promoted to the active roster whenever a team sees fit, but can also be offered a contract from another team so long as it is for an active roster spot. The original team may prevent this by promoting the player themselves.

Because 2021 is an unusual year, teams are also required to carry a 5 man CFL Practice Roster or taxi squad. This is a pool of players that can be accessed by any team in the event that injury or a COVID outbreak renders them unable to field enough players at a certain position and is required because American free agents must quarantine 14-days, 7 on each side of the border, before joining a team.

The five-man squad must include one American OL, one American DB or LB, one American REC or RB, one American DL, and one specialist or Global. These players are property of their team to manage like any other practice roster member unless another team files a claim for them.

For example, should Montreal not be able to field a Global player due to a COVID outbreak, they can claim one from Winnipeg’s taxi squad and that player cannot be prevented from leaving. Should the player no longer be needed on Montreal’s active roster, Winnipeg can recall them at their own discretion and the player’s rights revert back to the original team at the end of the year regardless.

All nine CFL teams made moves Friday to set their active roster, practice roster, and CFL practice roster but may rearrange them as they see fit ahead of their first game. An astute observer will note that every team currently has more than 45 players on the main roster, however, this is not in violation of roster rules. That is because injured players do not count against the roster and those unable to practice may be placed on either the one-game or six-game injured lists in the coming days. A team with more than one Global on the main roster might not play more than one on game day if the other is hurt.

That is just a brief overview of the complex inner workings of a CFL roster and how it influences the Global players that made teams this week. They hold both a privileged position as a protected group and one where more than pure talent determines their opportunity to live out a dream.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.