Arena League Owners Cancel Season
Barring a quick settlement between its owners and players, the Arena Football League won’t be playing its 14th season.
League owners voted Thursday to cancel the season, set to begin April 17, after an antitrust suit was filed by a group of players on Feb. 4. The owners sought to conduct collective bargaining negotiations with a players union, but instead were confronted with the lawsuit.
The suit accuses the 18 franchise owners of conspiring to illegally limit the players’ rights and salaries and restrict the ability of players to offer their services to competing employers _ in other words, a form of free agency.
AFL president Ron Kurpiers said Friday there still is a very limited window for the league to conduct a season.
``The owners always have said we would collectively bargain, but it would almost have to be within days or hours for something to happen,″ he said. ``We are committed to cancel and all the staffs are being brought together by teams to begin the layoff process. The only way to turn it around is literally for something to happen in days, and I am not sure that could happen.″
Arena Football, the most successful of the offshoot leagues in the United States, received tremendous positive publicity when Kurt Warner guided the St. Louis Rams to the NFL championship. Warner, the league and Super Bowl MVP, played three seasons for Iowa of the AFL.
AFL team values have soared to near $7 million, and the NFL holds an option to purchase up to 49 percent of the league. Arena Football recently signed a television contract with three national networks, including a game of the week on TNN. ESPN and ESPN2 also were involved and ABC was scheduled to televise ArenaBowl, the championship game.
Jeffrey Kessler, lawyer for the players who filed the lawsuit, said his group on Monday will file a preliminary injunction against the league canceling the season. Kessler has been organizing the players with backing from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
``This is an attempt to coerce players into forming a union, and they have not given up,″ said Kessler, who also had a role in the NBA’s dispute with its players that led to last season’s lockout. ``We don’t believe a group of owners can agree to boycott their employees until they agree to form a union and give up antitrust rights.″
Kurpiers claimed Kessler has only 40 to 50 of the nearly 500 Arena League players supporting him; Kessler said more than half the players back him. Kurpiers also accused Kessler of sabotaging an effort by the Teamsters Union to unionize the players.
``Over the last three weeks, players came to us in droves after the filing of the lawsuit asking what should they do,″ Kurpiers said. ``Our position is we can’t do anything, but all we can tell you is the only way to go forward is to sit down with a group and negotiate under collective bargaining.″
Kurpiers believes that would have happened as players signed cards to unionize under the Teamsters.
``But Kessler jumped in at the highest level of the teamsters and started manipulating ... to cause the Teamsters to delay. We ran into a deadline we had to keep. We were hoping to hear from the Teamsters, but the UFCW caused such a disruption the Teamsters felt they couldn’t come to us, even though they had a majority of players.″
Kessler said the Teamsters ``to my understanding no longer are even involved. We heard they decided they had no interest in this.″
In a statement, the UFCW said it ``does not represent Arena Football players for purposes of collective bargaining. The union does not wish to represent the players now or in the future. The union, in conjunction with the National Football League Players Association, is supporting the players and assisting them with exercising their rights under the law.″
Telephone messages left with Frank Murtha Jr., a lawyer involved in organizing Arena League players under the Teamsters’ banner, were not returned. But an Arena League player, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said the Teamsters are pursuing unionizing the players.