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Haves vs. Have Nots: Is Cheating Rampant In AFL?

Adam Markowitz
Thursday March 6, 2014

It's the story that no one in the Arena Football League wants to talk about. But last Friday, when the Florida Times Union reported that Aaron Garcia had retired, the cat was officially let out of the bag. On Saturday, Garcia took to Facebook and made a pointed statement.

"Just to make things clear. I have not retired at this point. I have only refused to report to Jacksonville. There are a lot of players and fans in Jacksonville I would love to play with and for, but that will only happen if I can provide for my family. Good luck to all of the players in Jax and around the league. Much love and respect to you all. Stay together, play hard and put on a show for the great fans of the AFL."

The message though, remains the same. Pay me more money, directly or indirectly, or I'm not playing.

It is quite clear what is going on here, and it's time to put the pieces together. The salary structure means nothing in the AFL for teams who are willing to break the rules. Garcia didn't suddenly wake up on the eve of the 2014 season and say to himself, "You know what, I need to make more money for doing what I'm doing in this league." It's clearly been going on for years. Cheating is rampant, and it doesn't stop with Aaron Garcia.

It doesn't seem to be all that much of a mistake that Garcia moved from team to team throughout the "AFL v2.0" era. He spent two years with the Jacksonville Sharks, one with the San Antonio Talons, and then was traded from the San Jose SaberCats to the Orlando Predators in 2013 and spent parts of the season with both teams. The Predators turned around and traded the future Hall of Famer back to Jacksonville just a few weeks ago, and Garcia hasn't reported to training camp, nor is there indication that that is going to change any time in the near future.

In 2011, Garcia, one of the more powerful figures amongst the players in the AFL, came to ArenaBowl XXIV Media Day on a mission. He spoke very candidly with me about the stance of the players of the AFL and how much money they were making. At the time, the AFL had experimented with the idea of "marketing players," who were able to make a significantly higher percentage than the average player on a weekly basis. The base pay for AFL players was just $400 per game, and the marketing players, of which each team was allowed to have three, would make 2 1/2 times that much.

Clearly, playing for $7,200 per season wasn't going to sit well with Garcia.

"You're not even giving players an opportunity to be honest. It's real hard to do what you need to do to prepare for a game like this on $400 a game," Garcia stated at the time.

It shouldn't be considered a shock then, that the 2012 season was marred by disputes between the newly formed AFL Players Union (AFLPU) and the AFL owners. The first game of the season between the Pittsburgh Power and the Orlando Predators was destroyed due to the owners firing all of the players before the game and replacing them with scabs. Later on in the year, the Power picked up a win via the first – and to date, the only forfeit in AFL history when the AFLPU called for the Cleveland Gladiators to stand down and not show up for a game.

The end result was an increase in pay for the base player from $400 per game with housing being paid to $825 per game with housing not being paid for. Players have the option to forfeit a percentage of their pay to get team housing, but in actuality, this isn't a whole heck of a lot of a raise for the average player. There are also terms for a certain number of players on each team to get slightly more money on a weekly basis.

Teams have their own built in benefit plans which they can offer to players. Some have better housing opportunities for players. Some have better meals. Better facilities. Better job opportunities for their players and their families outside of the AFL. And some apparently have more greenback pictures of Benjamin Franklin to throw around as well.

I've heard on more than one occasion people use the term "ringers" to describe certain players across the AFL. There are clearly teams that have, and there are clearly teams that don't have. Odds have it, you only have to look at the standings every season to see which teams are the "haves" and which teams are the "have nots."

It's not the fault of the players either. Heck, if the AFL came to me and wanted to pay me $100 for every article I wrote and let me do the exact same thing I do with ArenaFan, I'd be bidding this site adieu as well. If a player can get better benefits playing elsewhere, whether that be monetary or otherwise, then good by him for it.

And it does happen. Take these three accounts for example.

All player and team identities have been concealed, as all sources who spoke to ArenaFan for this story did so under the condition of anonymity.

Player A once visited an unnamed AFL market. The player was frank and asked the team what it could do for him. The franchise offered him a two-year contract, which meant a slightly higher pay than the average player. The player asked whether that was all that he was being offered. He signed with a different team.

Player B was once a free agent, and he visited a market which he really wanted to play in. The team tried to get him a job in the field which he wanted to work. When that failed, the player went back to the market which he was playing in prior to his free agency because he had a guaranteed job with a company closely related to one of the owners of that franchise.

Player C has played on multiple teams in his career. He stated that checks were "much smaller" in one market than they were in another market, and he went on to say that that was why some teams win and some teams lose.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions from these three separate stories.

The purpose of a collective bargaining agreement (with the key word being "collective") is to have a level playing field throughout the league. Every team should have the same chance of signing a free agent, and that just simply isn't the case.

Certainly, one could argue that at least the example of Player B could be deemed above board. Though it certainly isn't fair for the market which ended up getting the short end of the stick and didn't land Player B, there are some situations which cannot be avoided. Tampa Bay, Orlando, and Jacksonville will always be desirable markets because the state of Florida has no state income tax, and the fact of the matter is that the weather is a whole heck of a lot better in the Sunshine State than it is in Des Moines or Spokane or Cleveland (no offense to those cities).

However, what we're talking about here probably isn't something which the AFL or the AFLPU would be proud of. We're talking about situations where players are being given the fringe benefits of working for their AFL employers (or their closely related entities) outside of the team setting. I'll go back to the example of me and my writing. If the AFL decided that it didn't want to pay me to be a writer, but it was going to pay me at the same time to work for a company which one of the league owners owned and pay me $100 per week to cover the cost of my article, I'd again be telling ArenaFan to peace out. I'd get the same amount of money per article, but it isn't Joe's fault that someone in the league office is giving me a benefit which he doesn't have the ability to give me.

There's nothing "collective" about that bargain.

It probably isn't a mistake that everywhere Garcia has gone, his teams have been good, save for the start to the season which San Jose had last year. Garcia won three division titles in a row, two of which were with Jacksonville and one of which was with San Antonio, and the Preds team which he played on last season was good enough at the end of the year to win the ArenaBowl. Sure, Garcia is excellent. But if Garcia has all but admitted that he was getting paid under the table (again, either directly or indirectly), why should we not jump to the conclusion that other players weren't being paid in shady manners as well?

With apologies to the team which I am about to throw under the bus, it certainly brings up some questions. Does it seem shady that the Predators, who underwent an ownership change between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, have traded away Prechae Rodriguez? And Dominic Jones? And Travis Coleman? And Simeon Castille? And Quinn Pitcock? And Jarvis Williams? And Jeff Maddux (who was acquired in the "We're-Not-Going-To-Call-This-A-Dispersal-Draft-But-It's-Really-A-Dispersal-Draft")?

Oh, and Aaron Garcia. Who wants to play in the AFL, but doesn't want to do so unless he is taken care of under the tab… err… financially.

Obviously, whatever money Garcia was offered to make in Jacksonville (and presumably in Orlando as well) isn't enough, at least at this point.

It isn't just the Preds, though. They're just the example of the team which made the most radical changes in the offseason.

This isn't the first time that Garcia has threatened to leave the AFL. He didn't immediately report to Orlando last season when he was traded from San Jose, sitting out a Week 6 Preds loss to the eventual ArenaBowl champion Arizona Rattlers. Garcia showed up to the City Beautiful for a May 4th game against Pittsburgh, and his arrival took a team from an 0-5 start, including three losses in a row by a combined 86 points, to a team which finished 7-11, made the playoffs, and darn near knocked off the Philadelphia Soul in the opening round of the postseason.

Even back in 2011, on the eve of the biggest game of his career, Garcia contemplated the idea of sticking around the AFL or leaving after that game was said and done with.

"There's more coming in the future… unless this league can't continue to grow," said Garcia of his own career. "The other thing that won't keep me in this league are financial obligations. Hopefully I can do what I love to do and still take care of my financial obligations."

We, as fans of the AFL, have every right in the world to question what in the heck is going on here. As baseball fans, we have demanded to know which ones of our favorite star players have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, and we want them to have their reputations destroyed for it. As basketball fans, we want to know if our team is tanking games for the sake of trying to get better in the future. And now, as Arena Football League fans, we all have the right to be asking the question about teams which are cheating. Do the Cleveland Gladiators or the Iowa Barnstormers, teams which have been perpetually subpar in the "AFL v2.0" era, or better yet -- the league-run San Antonio Talons -- really have any chance whatsoever to compete with the "big boys" who seem to be loading up their rosters with these so called, "ringers?"

Now, we know there is cheating going on in the AFL. Whether it's just the Aaron Garcia situation or whether it is the entire league being corrupt, we know that it happens. And we demand to know more.

History suggests that Commissioner Jerry Kurz will take a stand against cheating franchises. After all, he was the president of the af2 at the time that the Quad City Steamwheelers were banned from the 2002 playoffs for violating the single-entity compensation rules. Steve Umberger, who was the chairman of the rules committee of the af2 at the time told the Florida Times Union for this 2002 story, "It doesn't take long to figure out when rules are broken. When a team loses one game in two years, lights start to go off. And players talk, coaches talk, so the truth usually comes out in the end."

My guess this time? This will go completely unnoticed, and I'll be getting a nasty email from a few teams and the league office telling me that I don't know what I'm talking about and that everything is on the up and up with all of the league's teams.

Yeah. Just like David Staral and Julee White were the saviors of the Chicago Rush.

Don't believe me? Fine. Go ask Aaron Garcia. He'll tell you more of the truth. Whether you want to hear it or not.

Adam Markowitz is an accountant and a freelance sports writer living in Orlando. As a Florida State graduate with degrees in music and history, the garnet and gold will forever be a part of him, but he bleeds the black and red of the Orlando Predators like none other. Adam has been following the AFL since 1991 and has been at well over 200 games, including 16 ArenaBowls. You can follow Adam on Twitter @AFLGuru.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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