The new CBA changes non-imports/imports to “nationals/internationals”: what will that mean?

One of the most unique aspects of the CFL has always been the import rule, which in its 2010-2013 incarnation required teams to have 20 of 42 active players and seven of 24 starters be "non-imports," or essentially Canadians. It's a rule that always leads to ongoing debates, including if Canadian quarterbacks should be counted, and attempts to lower that ratio in the 2010 CBA led to strong pushback and the eventual maintenance of the ratio. That rule's going to change substantially under the new CBA ratified Thursday and Friday, though, and it's going to even get rid of the non-import terminology. From the CFL's release on the new CBA:

The agreement changes the way players are classified. Instead of being known as non-imports and imports, they will now be classified as nationals and internationals.

A player will be considered a national player if he was a Canadian citizen at the time of signing his first contract, was classified as a non-import prior to May 31, 2014, or was physically resident in Canada for an aggregate period of five years prior to reaching the age of 18.

In the past, a player could be born in Canada and have Canadian citizenship, but not qualify for non-import status if he received his football training outside of Canada. One example would be the sons of some former CFL players, who may have been born in Canada but learned their football in the U.S.

While some have long argued non-import players should simply be called Canadians, there remain some players in the league who were counted as non-imports even though they are not Canadian citizens.

In general, this should increase the numbers of potential Canadian players in the CFL and make it much less convoluted to gain non-import (or "national) status. Two of the four Canadian-born players selected in the NFL draft this year, Notre Dame's T.J. Jones and Penn State's John Urschel, may not have qualified for non-import status under the old system, but both were born in Winnipeg. Jones' father Andre played for the Blue Bombers, but moved back to Georgia when T.J. was young. It's unclear where Urschel grew up, but he never applied for non-import status (which used to require proving that you were in Canada for seven years before age 15 or five years before 18 with citizenship, often via school records).

Neither of those guys would necessarily ever want to play in the CFL, especially if they find success in the NFL, but they should be eligible for CFL teams to gamble on in the non-import draft if they want to, the way they did with other NFL-bound players like Brent Urban and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Under this new system, if Urschel, Jones or any other Canadian-born player washes out of the NFL and wants to come play in Canada and receive that national status, all they'd have to present is proof of Canadian citizenship (providing they've maintained it). This also means we're much more likely to see more kids of former CFLers in the league, and that's an exciting development. Reducing the residency limit for non-citizens to five years before age 18 also seems strong. Those changes should help boost the CFL's overall talent level and particularly its Canadian talent level, and they seems like a good thing from this corner. (This will take out the loophole that let Australians and others trained outside the U.S. count as non-imports, but there were never massive numbers of those, and the ones already in this league, such as current Saskatchewan punter Josh Bartel, will retain their status.) They also tie in nicely with last year's draft rule changes to reduce uncertainty and make eligibility more clear.

One potential argument against this change is that it could allow American-born-and-raised players with no Canadian connection to game the system by applying for Canadian citizenship before coming to the CFL to improve their value in the league. However, this seems highly unlikely to be seen on any kind of scale. Gaining Canadian citizenship is a long and difficult process, and it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to do it solely for football reasons; it would probably be simpler just to live in Canada for five years before age 18 and gain national status that way, and it doesn't seem probable many will do that either. It's crucial here that this only applies to the first contract, as that means American players who spend a career in the CFL won't become nationals over time even if they gain Canadian citizenship; that's something that does happen and could tip the balance, but gaining Canadian citizenship before playing a down in the CFL would seem much more difficult and much less likely. The CFL isn't high enough on anyone's radar screen and isn't paying players enough to make that worthwhile. It doesn't seem probable that these changes will substantially dilute how "Canadian" the CFL's non-imports are.

Why was this rule initially set up in such a complicated fashion with non-imports and imports? Well, the first version of it was designed before the CFL's formation in response to Winnipeg winning the 1935 Grey Cup with eight American players, and it undertook several evolutions over the years. It initially barred foreign players completely, then allowed them at small limits, then expanded those quotas but based them on citizenship. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled in 1965 that the CFL's approach wasn't legal, though, which led Bora Laskin (then the dean of Toronto's famed Osgoode Hall law school, later the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada) to draw up a plan for the CFL to preserve Canadian content while withstanding legal challenge, basing import/non-import status on where a player received his football training (or where he lived growing up), not his citizenship. Thus, judging by citizenship was always more of the initial plan; the league just went away from it for legal reasons.

Will those legal issues reoccur with the CFL allowing citizenship to count again? Possibly, but allowing a residency definition to be maintained as well as the citizenship one may help if this winds up before another human rights tribunal. It's also possible a tribunal would rule differently today than it did in 1965; labour law's evolved substantially over the years. As well, it's notable that first challenge was about the "Naturalized Canadian" rule, which doesn't really apply here; the league's new rule is about what happens before you get to the CFL, not about players becoming Canadian citizens over time. Bringing citizenship back into the equation is potentially a bit of a risk for the CFL, but doing so while also easing up on the residency requirements should enlarge the pool of Canadian talent out there significantly while also making the rules much clearer and more logical. That seems like a gamble worth taking.