This weekend the West Virginia Roughriders will host the New England Cavalry of the New England Arena League. It will be the 15th time a non-league opponent has made its way onto the American Arena League schedule this season. That’s a quarter of all games played, the heaviest use of imports anywhere in arena or indoor football.
The AAL has always been a benefactor to neighboring developmental leagues, and this initiative arguably hit its high-water mark in early spring. That being said, Saturday night in Florence was low tide. That’s when the Elite Indoor Football League’s Southern Steam walked off the field in their game against the Carolina Havoc, calling into question the merits of playing outsiders this late in the season.
For the AAL, non-league play is not just about filling vacancies created by dropouts and league affiliates that don’t want to travel on any given Saturday. It’s in their DNA. Since its launch, co-founders Tony Zefiretto and the late Jack Bowman have wanted to help teams and ownership groups succeed, whether affiliates or not. “That is one of the reasons we schedule non-league teams who have an aspiration to move up to the professional level,” Zefiretto explained to me last month.
But non-league opponents have been a double-edged sword. In 2018, the league avoided six cancellations by bringing in outside help. These substitutes combined for an 0-6 record and were outscored 463-76, an average margin of almost 65 points. Nevertheless, Zefiretto kept to his word and booked nine non-league games right out of the box this season. That’s now grown to 15 as schedules have had to be twisted around unreliable in-league franchises.
For the most part, this year’s non-league competition has been successful. Developmental teams are 3-11 going into this weekend – one win by the Steam and two by the Reading Raptors of the Mid-Atlantic Indoor Football League – and three of those 11 losses were by 21 points or fewer. Moreover, the margin of defeat has been slashed to 31.4 points on average. It got to the point where some developmental teams were showing up their professional counterparts. The High Point Wildcats of the Elite Indoor Football League played a respectable game in West Virginia back in April, sandwiched between two sloppy performances by the Burgh Defenders at that same venue. So, why the giant step back last Saturday in Florence?
With four minutes remaining, the Havoc were looking at first-and-goal and a chance to build on a 91-20 lead when the Steam called time-out. They never came back. If they had, Havoc head coach Anson Yarborough intended to reach the century mark. His would be the first team in the AAL to ever do it, an impressive accomplishment for any first-year coach. At the time no one knew why the Steam didn’t answer the bell, but the intelligentsia speculated it was to avoid having a hundred points hung on them. Steam owner and head coach Bobby Dammarell has since refuted this.
“Look back at our AIF league game vs the Columbus Lions [three] years ago,” said Dammarell earlier this week. “They put up 100 on us, and I never stopped that one. The score had nothing to do with it.”
Rather, it was for the safety and well-being of his players that Dammarell insists he withdrew.
“From the beginning of the game we had guys [taking] illegal hits – choking, fingers to the eyes, stomped on, kicked, slammed, and more – all with no calls from the refs,” Dammarell explained. “I tried several times to talk with the refs about what was going on and they kept telling me the rules in that league are different than ours [the EIFL].”
Members of the Carolina Havoc agree the score did not appear to be a factor in Dammarell’s decision, nor did any concern of fatigue despite the Steam having to play again the next day in Jacksonville. Halftime would have made a better exit strategy for avoiding a beatdown and getting an early start out of town. Havoc staff went on to report no complaints from the Steam about the game’s style or officiating when they checked in on their visitors during the break, further stoking this controversy. And for his part, Havoc GM Steve Smith says the refs weren’t to blame.
“While we respect the reasoning behind the Steam’s decision to end the game, we disagree with their position that the officiating was lopsided,” said Smith. “We believe that the officiating was fair and balanced. The officials did the best that they could given the rules differences between the AAL and EIF.”
On top of everything, the Havoc’s on-field personnel have countered with charges of unsportsmanlike play on the part of the Steam, which Dammarell has acknowledged.
“The [Havoc] coaches came at me hollering that they have playoffs to look forward to and weren’t going to allow that,” Dammarell says of the complaints leveled at his players. “We have our season and post-season to finish as well, but I’m supposed to allow them to beat up on my guys? I’ve never not finished a game before, but I felt it was the right thing to do for the players’ safety.”
Ordinarily, Saturday’s game would be a mere case of mutual alienation of affection but, as Dammarell’s draconian decision to withdraw evidences, the stakes are higher this late in the season. The Steam were in town as understudies for the Georgia Doom, who folded two weeks prior, and Smith says this kind of circumstance can be unavoidable.
“In regard to non-league games late in the season, they are sometimes necessary to continue playing within the scheduled season,” he said. “It is unfortunate that situations like this occur. However, it’s through the cooperation with other leagues who want to expose their players to a higher level that games like this can occur.”
Nevertheless, the threshold of its postseason is a questionable time for either league to round out its dance card or to pay players in exposure bucks. Submitting players to unfamiliar rules and asking them to ignore a caste system and its inevitable predisposition towards proving something to the other guy has its place, but that place is much earlier on the calendar than mid-May.
Interleague cooperation is a dish better served when players and teams are still trying to figure out who they are, not once they’ve declared themselves as primary contenders for a league championship. As we all know, the airs of a champion-in-the-making are thick, but their skins can be thin.
An earlier version of this entry reported non-league results that excluded the Steam’s 36-6 win over the Peach State Cats on May 12, which was initially billed as a scrimmage. The AAL has posted conflicting accounts that also report this as a non-league game. Whether official or not, the outcome further demonstrates improvements by non-league teams, so inclusion of the Steam’s win makes this a more genuine comparison.