(ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHAEL GLASKIN-CLAY)
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse being a fan of the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League, it did.
David Staral has made this nightmare of a season even more hellish, giving Rush fans a glimmer of hope when he took over ownership of the team in February, but then turning out to be just another fraud.
Another Ownership Disaster
The Chicago Sun-Times delivered the bad news earlier this week, reporting that Staral (pictured below in the white dress shirt) is a three-time convicted felon: once for defrauding the state benefits system and twice for embezzling a total of nearly half a million dollars from a previous employer. He's currently on probation.
He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy a month before becoming owner of the Rush. He lists $1.5 million in debts to 60 creditors.
Not surprisingly, after basking in his 15 minutes of fame, Staral stopped attending games, stopped paying the bills, and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth.
This is "Professional" Football?!
What was originally slated to be a nationally-televised game between the Rush and the Philadelphia Soul on May 4 turned into a farce. The small handful of fans who showed up to the game were greeted with no jumbotron and no scoreboard in Allstate Arena.
I suppose the thought was, "Why bother?" After all, there was no camera crew there to film anything for the jumbotron, for instant replay, or for broadcast of the game over the internet. The lesson to be learned there is that when you don't pay for a camera crew, they don't show up to work.
Of course, even if a camera crew had been there, the game couldn't have been broadcast over the internet because there was no internet connection in the arena.
As it turns out, when you don't pay an $11,000 bill to your internet provider, Mr. Staral, your service gets shut off. Huh. Imagine that.
It's amazing that the lights were even on in the arena.
Press row was so utterly useless at the game that AFL Fan Zone's Matt Gabrielson simply decided to sit in one of the thousands upon thousands of empty seats in the arena to watch the game and examine the single-sheet photocopied game program that was handed out to fans and media, feeling like a complete schmuck for having supported the new owner and trying to keep what few Rush fans are left excited about the season and the future of this once-proud franchise.
Gabrielson's not the only one who feels like a schmuck. I was briefly sucked back in to the arena football spirit in March when the Rush front office, under Staral's "ownership," contacted me. I took a cautious stance, but I joined Gabrielson among the fans who thought there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel with Staral at the helm.
But my enthusiasm quickly faded as I suffered through consecutive lousy internet broadcasts of the first two Rush games. I'm quite certain that a high school A/V club could have done a better job of broadcasting a video feed that isn't choppy and an audio feed that actually works.
It's pretty hard to follow your favorite team when you can't see or hear them, and I wasn't yet prepared to put the time and money into a three-hour trip each way to Chicago to attend a game until the team and the league could show me some progress over time.
Well, they showed progress alright. Downhill progress.
There were warning signs along the way that sent up red flags in my mind that Staral may not be the savior that Rush fans originally thought him to be, and when the May 4 fiasco happened, I knew the party was over.
So in times of great distress like this, arena football fans naturally turn to the league office for information, reassurance, some sort of indication as to what the hell is going on. And in typical AFL fashion, the league office is dead silent about the issue, acting as if everything is just hunky-dory in Chicago (and humorously blaming the lack of a game broadcast on "technical difficulties" on their Facebook page).
AFL commissioner Jerry B. Kurz finally found the time in his busy schedule to talk to Richard Obert of azcentral.com -- yes, out in Arizona -- about the latest in a long string of black eyes for the league.
So how in the world did the league not know about Staral's criminal history and financial issues?!
"In my entire 26-plus years in the league, I had never done a criminal background check on a prospective owner," Kurz told Obert. "We should have. I learned my lesson. We will do that now."
Whaaaaaaat?! You're giving a guy the keys to your largest-market team, located in the same city as league headquarters, and you don't do a basic background check on the guy?!
Well, you and Staral must go way back, then, if you didn't think due diligence was necessary to protect the league and all the other team owners. Right?
Danny Ecker of Crain's Chicago "spoke with Mr. Kurz in February shortly after Mr. Staral purchased the team. Mr. Kurz said he didn't know Mr. Staral until a week before the deal and was under the impression that he was one of the investors that the team's previous owner, Julee White, had lined up to help fund the team. 'I like his enthusiasm, I like his desire to dig in and be a hands-on owner,' Mr. Kurz said at the time. 'He's not someone who is coming in knowing everything, but he's a quick learner.'"
In very very very VERY recent memory, Kurz had just gotten suckered by White, and now it happens again with Staral.
Holy Mother of Pearl, the ineptitude here is absolutely staggering!
The Sun-Times had this beautiful quote from "consultant Marc Ganis, who has advised teams in the NFL and other professional leagues through his firm, Sports Corp.:
"This isn't just embarrassing for the AFL, it demonstrates immense incompetence. This information [about Staral] was available to anyone. The indication to me is the AFL is in worse shape than anyone believed — if this is any indication of the competence of the AFL management, the league is in real trouble."
Whoever was in charge when Staral sold Kurz on his line of bull should be fired. That person WOULD be fired in any business on the planet.
"Everything is my responsibility. It's my responsibility. I'm in charge," Kurz told Obert out in Arizona. "Owners entrusted in me to be in charge. They've empowered in me to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the league."
The owners might want to rethink who they entrust to be in charge. When your commissioner thinks his "biggest fault is that I believe in people when they tell me something" -- as Kurz told Obert -- your league is in a world of hurt.
When your league-wide attendance is the lowest it's been since 1989 -- and your commissioner tells Obert, "Every business I know of has challenges. We have come so far. We brought a business out of bankruptcy. We're doing OK." -- you and I have a far different definition of "OK."
Fans have to work WAY too hard to consume the Arena Football League's product. The league keeps feeding its fans nothing but puff pieces and refuses to address serious issues. Teams come and go every year, rarely with any mention of it by the AFL (Exhibit A: the Dallas Vigilantes). The league absolutely destroys the Chicago Rush by letting any crook and con artist off the street "own" a team (as long as he's enthusiastic, of course).
Why on earth would any fan want to give the AFL one single cent of their money or one single second of their time? It's no wonder attendance has tanked!
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
In the words of The Who, we won't get fooled again.