Interview transcript: Dean Blandino, Head of Officiating for the XFL

Liz: Welcome to the show, Dean. How are you?

Dean: I’m doing well. How are you?

Liz: I’m really well, thank you and thanks for taking the time out to speak with me today. I know you’ve been involved in the sport for a long time so you’ve no doubt got some really interesting insight and experience to share. How did it all start out for you?

Dean: Yeah. I started in the NFL in 1994 as an intern in the officiating department and learned all about officiating in the NFL and then was involved in instant replay when that came back to the NFL in 1999. And then I was in charge of the NFL officials for several years and now I work on the broadcasting side for Fox Sports, doing rules analysis. And I also work with the NCA, our college football organization and now the XFL, which is a new American football league that’s starting up this spring. Yeah.

Liz: Now, was officiating something that you’d always wanted to like pursue or is it just something you fell into?

Dean: And it’s something I fell into. I played football as a youth and in high school here in the States and then had wanted to stay involved in the sports and sent my resume to the NFL. I lived in New York, the league office was in New York City and they had an officiating internship available. And I interviewed and they offered me that position and I started to learn about officiating and I was watching videos and editing videos about different types of penalties and the rules and it really, it became very interesting to me and it evolved from there.

Liz: Now referees and officials, they are massively under attack from players, teams, fans, and it’s more scrutiny than ever around these games, especially with social media and like talking heads on TV. It’s, I’d say a lot of pressure for them. Like what do you think needs to change in order to fix that?

Dean: Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s something that we are concerned about because the scrutiny has increased dramatically in recent years with the advent of social media. There are so many good things about social media and it connects us with people that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, but also, it creates this environment of negativity around the officiating. And then what that does, it trickles down to the lower levels where in the United States we’re having issues, finding officials to officiant youth sports because they’re either a young person that is trying it out for the first time and has a bad experience and then doesn’t return. Or just enough young people just not interested in it because they see what the referees and officials go through at the professional level. And it’s definitely a concern and I think it’s creating almost like a campaign to humanize these officials and make sure people understand that they’re just like you and me and people make mistakes, but they’re actually very good at what they do. But unfortunately, we just tend to focus on the mistakes and not the overwhelming majority of plays and situations where they’re absolutely correct.

Liz: Now you’re the executive director of ‘Her Turf’  which is a documentary about three female football referees. So it’s Annice Canady, Mary Podesta, and Tangela Mitchel. Now they were bravely intent to level the playing field. I suspect that for many, this series was an eye-opener. How was it for you being involved and do you anticipate any further series like this across sports in general?

Dean: Yeah, it was definitely an eye-opener and I was introduced to Shantel Hansen, the filmmaker through a mutual friend, Annice, who’s actually in the film. And it was, I had been involved with recruiting at the NFL and looking for whether it was minority officials, female officials, and just looking for an inclusive group. And it definitely was an eye-opener for me when I talked to female officials and, and the things that they go through officials. It’s already a tough profession and now you add from a female perspective where historically, at least in American football, there hasn’t been a lot of female officials. And so there are challenges just as simple as getting facilities to change in and then those types of things. And so I think this film, the people that we’ve talked to, and we’ve shown it at different film festivals and it’s won a bunch of awards and I’m so proud of Shantel and the women that are in the film. 

We’ve engaged with so many people that didn’t even know that women officiated American football or it was an opportunity and that was the whole point to open eyes and to get young women interested and so they can start officiating and look at that as a career path. So it was a very rewarding experience for me and I think we’re going to continue to look at other ways to just promote female officiating throughout all sports and not just here in the United States but all over the world.

Liz: Yeah, I think that’d be really fascinating. Now, last week it was announced that you were joining the XFL as their Head of Officiating. How excited are you to be taking on this role?

Dean: I’m very excited. This was an opportunity that I was very interested from the beginning and when they reached out to see if I would join the team and be a part of it, I jumped at the chance. And because it’s an opportunity to start from the ground up and to create, you know, to start a league and we created rules and different things to innovate the game and I think it’s going to be really exciting. It’s going to start right after the Super Bowl here in February. And I think the fans are going to really enjoy the game and I’m really excited for it.

Liz: As you said, the XFL kicks off in February with the first games on Saturday the 8th. The season runs for a 10-week regular season before the playoffs and the championship but how will the XFL differentiate from what we’ve all come to know in the NFL?

Dean: Yeah, so the XFL, the rules are, for the most part, NFL rules, I would say 95% of the rule book is based on the NFL rules but there are some changes. And the XFL was looking to innovate. The kickoff is going to look a little bit different than what we’re used to seeing with the NFL or even college football. Overtime is almost going to look like the penalty kicks in your football and we call it soccer, obviously.  And so where teams alternate from the five-yard line and they get one try from the five-yard line and then the other team gets a try and they go five times and at the end, we see who has the most successful tries. 

And so, I think that’s going to be really exciting. There’s a three-point extra point try that we haven’t seen in American football before. So now a team that is down by nine points can score a touchdown and then tie the game with that three-point try from the 10-yard line. So I think these are things where it’s gonna look different than what we’re used to seeing in American football. But I think it’s going to make what is my favorite game, I think it’s going to make it even more exciting.

Liz: Whilst I appreciate it’s new and hasn’t even kicked off yet, do you think that the XFL will look to follow the success of the NFL’s international series and look to play outside of America or is establishing the league on home soil the first and at present primary objective?

Dean: Well, I think the primary objective is to establish a standalone league here in the United States, but then who knows? If it’s successful here, then I think the next logical steps, similar to what the NFL is doing with their international series, is to look outside the United States. I’m talking to you because there are fans, there are American football fans all over the world. Right. And it’s not just in the United States. And I think it’s a game that, you know, there haven’t been the young people, whether it’s in Europe or in Asia, not a lot of young people have been exposed to it. And I think once they’re exposed to it, I think they’d come to love it. And I think that’s something certainly the XFL would want to explore, you know, at some point down the road.

Liz: Yeah, absolutely. I think as British fans, we’d absolutely welcome it.

Dean: Yeah.

Liz: Amazing, Dean. It’s been really good speaking with you today and best of luck with the XFL. 

Dean: Thank you so much, Liz.

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