For Aaron Garcia, the hardest part was telling his three kids about Christmas. Sure, when the New York Dragons quarterback heard that the Arena Football League had voted to suspend the 2009 season, with no promise of return, the 38-year-old worried about his mortgage, his family's health insurance, and dusting off his resume. But the worst thing was explaining the situation to his 5-, 7-, and 10-year-olds.
"I get this call two weeks before the holiday," Garcia says. "I had to tell my kids it was going to be a different type of Christmas than last year."
Citing the recession and the need for an improved economic model, AFL owners voted in December to shut down the league for at least one year. The AFL, which was heading into its 23rd season, did not detail the specific problems or address why a shutdown was necessary to solve them.
The decision came as something of a surprise for a league that had survived much longer than many skeptics thought it would, featured a unique style of play that included a 50-yard field and high-scoring games, and set an attendance record last year. Startled players were left to experience the visceral fear that has stalked the many Americans who have lost their jobs in this wobbly economy, unsure of the status of their wages and benefits, and upset with management about a lack of transparency.
AFL salaries are modest, with most players earning between $40,000 and $50,000 per season. The league minimum is $31,000, and the average salary, boosted by the contracts of a handful of franchise players who earn six figures, is $80,000. Most arena athletes hold non-football jobs during the offseason.
"I have a middle-class home in Sacramento, three bedrooms for three kids," says Garcia, who for most of his career has worked a second job during the offseason. "I have mortgage payments like everyone else. Now every day I'm making calls, trying to figure out what the next move will be. Maybe I'll go up to Canada to finish my career on my own terms, but if that doesn't work out I'm looking into coaching, maybe the fire department."
In addition to fearing for his livelihood, Garcia is angry about how the league has handled the shutdown. "They were holding the threat of bankruptcy over our heads in asking us to agree to this," says Garcia. "The Dragons ownership has been good to us, but there are a lot of owners who, though they might be losing money, I really believe they're taking advantage of the situation, whether to keep the salaries down or to get out of some of their debt."
Acting AFL commissioner Ed Policy did not respond to repeated interview requests. Dragons owner Steven Silva initially agreed to an interview, but canceled because the league has ordered its clubs not to speak to the media during the restructuring period. The AFL has set a March 1 deadline for reaching a settlement with players and presenting plans for the future.
"The way they are handling this is shameful," says Henry Taylor, a Dragons team representative. "It's all behind closed doors; I can't even get any information. Guys have families, wives who are pregnant, and we're in limbo."
Adds Will Holder, a former Dragon who played with Kansas City in 2008 and is now unsure of how he will pay his mortgage or provide for his two children and one stepchild: "There are not enough eyes and ears on the owners, who don't seem to have any motivation to build trust. We're dealing with millionaires and billionaires. These are people who know their businesses. They could have told us what's going on months ago so we could get ourselves and our families prepared."
"This whole thing is bull-," says the Dragons' Billy Parker. "They've known for a while that they're having financial problems and they told us a week before Christmas that they weren't going to play, when guys had already quit their offseason jobs to train for the season. We were just left out there. (Dallas Cowboys and Desperados owner) Jerry Jones is building a billion-dollar stadium in Dallas; is he hurting for money?"
Intensity had characterized the AFL since its inception in 1987, both in style of play and loyalty of its fan base, though recent changes have threatened the uniqueness of the league. In 2007, the league voted to allow free substitution, meaning that players no longer had to play offense and defense, but could focus on specialized positions. Diehards bemoaned the so-called "Elway Rule," named after Colorado Crush owner John Elway, who advocated the change.
"(The rule change) showed signs that the game was losing its originality and the characteristics that made it such an interesting, unique game," says Ben Schwartz, a Dragons fanatic who runs the popular AFL Web site f4blog.com. "The ... owners have been pushing slowly but surely to make it the NFL-Lite."
"Maybe in the end they tried to grow it too fast," says Peter Schwartz (no relation), the Dragons broadcaster who lost his job because of the shutdown. "Maybe they need to take their foot off the pedal a little bit, but it's going to be very, very difficult to take the year off and come back and try to appeal to fans again."
After several years of growth - which included a television partnership with ESPN, the acquisition of teams by high-profile owners like Jon Bon Jovi, Jones and Elway, and record average attendance of 12,957 per game in 2008 - the league began to look more like the NFL, frustrating some players and fans.
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"They got infatuated with TV money and we kind of sold our soul to it, and there was more of a focus on who was in the owner's box looking down on the team," says the Dragons' Parker. "The rule change wasn't thought out for the betterment of the league. They were trying to make it closer to the NFL, but that was the appeal of arena football. People liked it because it was different. Why mess with something that was already working?"
Compounding their issues, some players are concerned about their representation in the ongoing negotiations over a severance settlement.
According to Richard Berthelson, the National Football League Players Association Interim Executive Director, the Arena Football League Players' Association operates from the NFLPA offices, but collects its own dues and deposits the money in its own bank accounts. The arena players are represented at the negotiating table by a group that consists of Berthelson; an outside council retained by the union; another union executive; James Baron, an active player and president of the AFLPA; and a rotating group of arena league players who form an executive committee.
"We know where we stand in the totem pole, because our players' association is in relation to the NFL, and we know we're kind of lower on the spectrum," says Garcia.
Berthelson, who would not comment on the status of the negotiations, says he disagrees with Garcia.
"We have people who are representing the players at every turn," he says. "A lot of time and a lot of effort have been put forward."
Given the March deadline, it is likely that anxious players will have to wait more than a month for even the simplest of answers. "If we come back in 2010 the big question is, are we all going to be free agents, or will players be paid for the year that teams held onto their rights?" asks Parker. "If you are not going to pay me but you keep my rights, what is this contract that we signed?"
Now, regardless of what happens, players are angry that they have been left hanging for so long. "We have to wait to find out what's going on with benefits and insurance," says Parker. "There has been no communication between most teams and the players. That's a long time, from December to March, to not have an answer."