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RIP, AAF

Maybe it’s only mostly dead, but it looks pretty dead.

After eight weeks of games and less than one season into Alliance of American Football’s existence, league owner Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all operations, league co-founder Bill Polian confirmed to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Tuesday.

“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 Tuesday. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, 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.”

[…]

Players are being forced to pay for their own travel back home, a source told ESPN, confirming an SI.com report.

Despite a litany of issues, ratings had remained fairly consistent for the league, with between 400,000 and 500,000 viewers often tuning in for games, according to ratings reports. And the league got a bump in attention after Johnny Manziel signed last month and was allocated to Memphis.

Manziel offered some advice to AAF players on Twitter with Tuesday’s news.

The league signed all players to three-year, non-guaranteed contracts worth $70,000 in the first year, $80,000 in the second year and $100,000 in the third year. The hope, Polian said, was that the league would send players to the NFL.

In his statement Tuesday, Polian said he’ll do “all I can” to help the league’s players achieve that.

“My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional,” Polian said. “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.”

Ebersol told ESPN in January that they had structured the league around a “sober business plan” because he believed he had learned lessons from his father, Dick Ebersol, who helped run the first version of the XFL.

Problems, however, popped up surrounding the nascent league that was trying to be a complement to the NFL.

See here for the background. The AAF had its challenges, but I thought they’d at least finish the season. Who knows, maybe they could have gotten an infusion of cash afterwards, and been able to keep going. I feel bad for the players, who of course will get screwed out of their last paychecks and stuck with hotel, travel, and healthcare expenses, and at a much lower level for the fans in San Antonio, the eternal bridesmaids of pro football fandom. Anyone wanna lay odds on how long the rebooted XFL will last?

Will the AAF be one and done?

Could be.

The first-year Alliance of American Football’s inability to secure cooperation from the NFL Players’ Association to use young players from NFL rosters has put the AAF in danger of folding, Tom Dundon, the league’s majority owner, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.

“If the players union is not going to give us young players, we can’t be a development league,” said Dundon, who in February committed to invest $250 million into the league. “We are looking at our options, one of which is discontinuing the league.”

The NFLPA had no official response to the accusations that their lack of cooperation is prompting the AAF to fold.

However, a players’ union official did express serious concerns about the risks of lending active NFL players to the AAF. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

The person said the players’ union is founded on the belief that using active NFL players and practice squad members for the AAF would violate the terms of the CBA and the restrictions that prevent teams from holding mandatory workouts and practices throughout the offseason. The limitations set in place are designed to ensure the safety and adequate rest and recovery time for football players. But there’s a concern that teams would abuse their power and pehaps force young players into AAF action as a condition for consideration for NFL roster spots in the fall.

The additional concern on the NFLPA’s part is that if an NFL player played in the AAF and suffered serious injury, that player would face the risk of missing an NFL season and lose a year of accrued experience, which carries financial ramifications for players.

Sorry, San Antonio. As For The Win notes, if the plan was to depend on NFL players to supplement the league, that plan was never going to work. The NFL might have an interest in having a feeder league available to it, but given the health risks of football, it’s not at all clear why any players that have a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL would go for that. What you’re left with is a bunch of lower-level players plus the occasional Johnny Manziell, and that adds up to a league that not many people have paid any attention to since their opening weekend. Even with better players available, you’ve got March Madness, the NBA and NHL gearing up for their post-seasons, and now MLB is back. That’s a lot of competition for a fledgling league. I figure as long as they have some TV money they can probably continue, but I don’t see much hope for their long term future.

It’s all about the pensions

I didn’t stay up to see the end of the Monday Night Football debacle. Whether you endured it or not, perhaps you’re wondering what exactly this particular labor dispute is about. To be blunt, it’s about the NFL attacking the referees’ retirement plan.

The referees’ union and NFL team owners remain at odds on several issues — pay, staffing levels and the arbitration system, to name a few. But Scott Green, the referee who’s head of the NFL Referees Association, says there’s one proposal above all others that he and his colleagues can’t manage to swallow: the league wants to freeze their long-running pension plans and switch them to less attractive 401(k)-style retirement plans.

“The key is the pension issue,” Green told HuffPost, adding that the pensions have been around since the mid-1970s. “A lot of our guys have made life-career decisions based on assuming that pension would be there.”

In facing a pension freeze, the NFL refs have plenty of company. Corporations across the country have been trying to switch their employees from traditional defined benefit pension plans to cheaper, less reliable defined contribution plans. Just one example is Con-Ed, which recently locked out workers as it tried to phase out employees’ traditional pensions and move them to 401(k)s.

A lockout, it should be noted, is different from a strike. The workers do not elect to stop working — they are forced to do so by management, putting them on the defensive. (Writing at The Nation, Dave Zirin and Mike Elk compared locking out 119 referees to “using an Uzi on a field mouse.”) The prevalence of lockouts during labor disputes has soared in the weak economy.

But in this case, employees are squaring off with an ownership that doesn’t pretend to be under financial duress. According to Forbes, the average NFL team is now worth $1.1 billion, up 7 percent over the previous year. To draw a blue-collar parallel, the league is a bit like the manufacturer Caterpillar, which has been pressuring its workers to bend to concessions despite the company’s record profits.

Indeed, when HuffPost asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to address the pension issue on Wednesday, he didn’t argue that the league’s retirement contributions to referees had grown too onerous. Instead, he simply noted the fact that American workers in general are losing their defined benefit pensions. Even Roger Goodell, Goodell noted, doesn’t enjoy such a pension plan.

“From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program,” said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico’s Playbook. “About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

“What we agreed to do and offer as ownership,” he added, “is that they would have a defined contribution plan, in the form of 401(k), so they’ll still have a pension plan but the risk, like [for] most of us, would be on individuals.”

As I said before, this fight is entirely of the NFL’s choosing. The refs don’t make that much money. Their pension plan isn’t some out-of-control cost for a staggering industry. The league is straight up trying to screw them, same as they tried to screw the players last year. The Players’ Association, to its credit, has called on the league to end the lockout. The players have the right under their agreement to refuse to play if they believe their safety is in danger, and I hope they are prepared to take that step if the league won’t back down. And as for Goodell’s claim that the refs would be like him if they didn’t have a defined benefit plan, well, when the refs are paid as well as Roger Goodell, then he might have a point. Even people who don’t much care for unions, especially those in Wisconsin, are calling for the NFL to end the lockout before it gets any worse. I fear it is going to take something truly awful for the NFL to finally see reason on this. I don’t even want to think about what that might be. You can sign this petition at Change.org if you want to call on the NFL to end the lockout. See this Deadspin chat with George Atallah, the spokesman for the NFLPA, for more.

NFL will go with replacement refs in Week 1

Bad idea.

NFL officials have been locked out since early June.

In a memo sent to teams, obtained by USA TODAY Sports, NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson told clubs talks remained deadlocked, with the league remaining in contact with federal mediators.

Anderson cited issues that include:

•Pay increase rates.

•The league’s desire to replace the pension benefit with a defined contribution/401(k) plan.

•Disagreement over the total number of officials and the evaluation process.

“We’re no closer to a deal…and the opening game is right around the corner,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports, “so the league had no choice.”

The league most certainly does have a choice. They are choosing to try to do to the refs what they couldn’t quite do to the players, and they’re doing it to a group that is paid a lot less and has a lot less power. In doing so, they’re demonstrating the same lack of concern for the players that they were showing last year during that lockout.

In addition to questions of whether replacements can handle the speed of the NFL game, The NFL Players Association maintains that player safety is compromised.

“That’s the primary concern,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said, mindful that NFL efforts to improve safety last year included charging that officials serve as first responders in monitoring whether players are suffering from head injuries.

Atallah said the players union has reserved the right to take action against the league, and is mulling options while maintaining close contact with NFLRA.

I don’t know what they can do, but I hope they do something. We all deserve better than this.

Saturday video break: Let them play

Via Deadspin, an ad from the NFL Players Association that CBS refused to run:

I’ve never quite understood why it’s the players and not the owners who always get the worst of public opinion in labor disputes, but maybe that’s just my pro-labor bias showing. In any event, if tomorrow’s Super Bowl is the last game for awhile, please remember that this is a lockout, initiated by the owners, and not a strike. The players want to play, but they also don’t want the regular season extended to 18 games, and so we have a dispute. I must confess, I hadn’t really given much thought to the 18-game season issue. At a knee-jerk level, it’s easy to think “hey, more games are better”, but once you get past that you begin to see the problems. If you’d like to have it all explained to you by someone who knows it cold and makes a lot of sense, give a listen to this podcast of Sean Pendergast’s radio show on 1560 The Game with Texans Chick Stephanie Stradley. They get into the labor stuff after talking about the Texans’ defense and draft possibilities, but it’s all good. (You can also read this post for most of the same points if you prefer.) Anyway, here’s my marker to say I’m with the players. Let them play.