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AAF’s Sudden Suspension of Operations Blindsides Players and Coaches

The AAF’s coaches and players have plenty of questions after the start-up league suspends operations with a few weeks left in the first season. Things certainly weren't perfect, but how did the league get here?

As the Alliance of American Football was placed on life support Tuesday afternoon, there were some coaches, executives and staffers just trying to gather information.

The San Antonio Commanders were in the middle of practice when a report came down from the Sports Business Journal that the league would be suspending operations just eight weeks into its inaugural season. The Memphis Express were breaking for lunch before an afternoon workout, with some finding out about the news as they returned to the facility. The San Diego Fleet had a practice just after 1 p.m. local time, but instead scrambled to get players into a meeting with head coach Mike Martz, who had to explain that, at the very least, their flashy new football venture was being put on hold.

Questions immediately shifted to how long their health insurance would last, and whether they’d just received a final paycheck. Some coaches simply sent their teams home.

This all comes after a time of brief positivity around the league. Some players had just gotten bonuses in their checks a week ago. Coaches were promised computers that they would (finally!) be able to check out for the offseason in order to watch film, but had them re-inventoried by the technology department. Many were having fun, enough to ignore some of the warning signs that their start up venture was on shaky ground at best.

“There could be stuff going on all over the world, and we’d be focused on our next AAF game,” one executive said a few days before the announcement was made. “We’re oblivious to anything. Mueller reports? We don’t know anything else that’s going on. We’re just trying to win a football game.”

Here’s how we got to this point, according to a pair of AAF sources who requested anonymity in order to speak freely on the matter: The decision to shut the league down was made by controlling owner Tom Dundon. Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, pledged an investment of $250 million into the league back in February, at the time promising founding members Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian that he would keep them afloat for the foreseeable future. Ebersol and Polian have spent the last few days frantically searching for a plan B, especially given that the league had a prime television spot on CBS for this coming Saturday (just before the first Final Four matchup, with a game featuring perpetual football curiosity Johnny Manziel at quarterback).

Dundon, one source said, became enamored with the idea of utilizing younger players from the NFL, which, according to the source, ended up becoming a caveat to his investment despite positive discussions but no firm agreement between the AAF and the NFL Player’s Association. Dundon, apparently without checking with either Polian or Ebersol, expressed these concerns in an interview to USA Today last week, sending shockwaves throughout the league. 

Dundon, who did not return a request for comment sent through the Hurricanes, had every legal right to shutter the league under his power. However, the action left an eight-team league completely shell-shocked.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian said in a statement provided to Sports Illustrated. “When Mr. Dundon took over it was the belief of my cofounder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.

“My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional. I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest. I sincerely regret that many that believed in this project will see their hopes and efforts unrewarded. They gave their best for which I am deeply grateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Dundon has elected this course of action.”

The league was not without its problems from the get-go. Some coaches saw their insurance plans shifted, and workman’s comp issues forced the Orlando-based Apollos to practice over state lines. Payments were delayed, which, according to one source, was due to a shift in payroll companies (others speculated that the league was running out of funds). Certain members of the AAF noticed that travel budgets were beginning to tighten in recent weeks, and fewer non-essential personnel traveling.

However, they did manage to make a name for themselves. By letting viewers onto the sidelines through microphones attached to their coaches, they were able to capitalize on a part of the in-game experience many NFL teams kept secret. A take on their onside kick alternative (a long fourth down attempt from deep in one’s own territory) was voted on during the NFL’s league meetings. Their centralized referee walked viewers through difficult calls. The sweeping embrace of tech and gambling seemed to be a preview of the NFL’s own future.

They also tugged at the nostalgic, offering a second chance to obscure NFL footnotes like Trent Richardson and Christian Hackenberg among their stars. Without the ability to truly develop budding young talent, the Alliance scored a few weekends of solid ratings after the Super Bowl.

All of that matters little now to the team employees who relocated for a crack at joining a startup, or coaches who viewed this as a second chance to get back into football. While some of its more gregarious personalities, like legendary college coach Steve Spurrier, won’t have much to worry about, there were others depending on this as a steady source of income.

As one team employee put it Tuesday, the arrival of Dundon seemed to be a “knight in shining armor” scenario. Ultimately, they learned that “all that glitters isn’t gold.”

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