On Friday, the National Gridiron League resolved itself pretty much the way everyone expected: into a steaming pile of excrement left on our front porch with Commissioner Joe McClendon running off behind the hedge after ringing our doorbell. The only surprise in his imminent failure to organize the new league is that Hotels.com never bought the script for a Captain Obvious commercial. There’s simply no one in arena football who can claim bragging rights for having told the rest of us so. We all knew.
This act may have been funny were it not for the seasons of 267 players on NGL rosters at the time of impact claimed as collateral damage. They’ll be a year older by the start of next season, and a year closer to the terminus of that dream they’ve been living since Pop Warner days. That’s time they won’t be getting back.
Coaches will be a year older too, but we can only hope a year wiser. They were on the front lines suppressing fires while McClendon fiddled. Many did right by repatriating players into other leagues before the fuselage broke apart. Others have to ask themselves how the many life’s lessons they’d accumulated on the short end of countless scams failed them once again. They of all people should have known the first non-returned phone call, the first missing check, would be the start of worse days to come. Yet they did more than just drink the kool-aid; they bathed in it.
Some may offer the NGL a polite we-hardly-knew-ya sendoff on its way out the door, but the truth is that their flash across the room left in its wake a stench that will cling to the air and make them hard to forget for years to come. Arena football has been typecast as the runt of the professional sports world litter for a long time. Today’s ownership groups have labored to combat that stereotype and are making inroads, whether it’s in embedding professionalism into league front offices or cycling out weak franchises in favor of stronger expansion teams, or just being more invested in their own host markets. Now, with one fell swoop, McClendon has set the cause back a decade. We are once again the butt of jokes – the players who never see a paycheck, the teams that fold in the cloak of night, the little engines that really couldn’t.
And we’ll be forever asked why we didn’t see it coming. The truth, of course, is that we did.
From the beginning, this league was too suspiciously perfect. A functioning website. A player draft. A phone system with a menu that offered callers four choices. Hell, they even had their own radio show. The NGL looked to be the product of meticulous planning over a two-year period, sheparded by a commissioner who didn’t want to “make a big splash,” who wanted to take time to do things right. Then, presto. Days after another venue announcement, this league came apart faster than a Florida whore’s legs on a Sunday morning and we’re supposed to believe the unraveling was not for lack of trying. Arena football once again has a mess to clean up.
So now, it does what it does best: another cleanup. This one is going to take a village, but the process has started. Several CIF and IFL teams have signed former NGL players. On Friday night, Gregg Fornario opened his doors in Wheeling for a few spots – three to be exact, but what do you want? His Roughriders roster has been in the making for several months and, unlike the NGL brass, he honors prior commitments.
Then there’s AthELITE Scouting. Owner Zach Hibdon and associate Justin Kelm were among the first to break the news of the NGL’s demise. Hibdon, who partners as a scouting director for six teams in the CIF, IFL, and NAL, will do his part in trying to place players. Offensive lineman are in demand but he’ll help anyone and he’s even going an extra mile.
“[We] will not charge players since they were screwed over,” he told Fifty Yarder on Friday.
There’s no saying why McClendon took the stage as some 2019 incarnation of Larry & His Magic Trombone, telling everyone he was going to play his league without ever intending to do so. And – like Larry – he took out a few innocent bystanders as the skit evolved. But arena football is stronger today for having survived a number of McClendons Past. Maybe the only silver lining in this mess is that the NGL has given us a chance to demonstrate that.