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.
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.'"
Oh, so Kurz had known Staral for a week and kind of thought that Staral was a business partner with White, who had nearly run the Rush into the ground a month or two earlier, who stopped paying the bills, who couldn't be located for explanations, who got booted out of the league.......... But he was so enthusiastic!
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.
So far, my observations about the Chicago Rush have been about as accurate as my NCAA basketball bracket.
After a 76-61 shellacking at the hands of the visiting Spokane Shock on Easter Sunday, the Rush sit at 0-2 on the season and in desperate need of some sort of change in the area I thought would be their strong suit: the defense.
The offense is doing alright. Quarterback Carson Coffman (pictured below, No. 11) showed improvement in his second-ever Arena Football League start, and the offense as a whole went from scoring 41 points in their season opener to 61 points in Week 2. The offense committed no turnovers, and the o-line kept Coffman sack-free.
The Rush won the time of possession battle, they only committed four penalties, they were 8-of-9 in the red zone, and they produced 311 yards of offense to Spokane's 328.
All in all, not too shabby on the offensive side of the ball, especially with such an inexperienced quarterback.
The defense, however ... ugh.
It looked to me like Chicago's defense would be its strong suit heading into the season. It was the offense that worried me. That prediction turned out to be as prophetic as my inclusion of Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas and Miami in the Final Four.
In two games, the Rush have a grand total of one defensive stop. One. And that's only because Iowa missed a field goal attempt in Week 1. Had Phil Marfuggi been true on his kick late in the fourth quarter, we'd be talking about zero defensive stops in two contests.
No one in the AFL has given up more points (139) than the Chicago Rush. By comparison, Iowa leads the league with 75 points allowed in two games. Both of the Barnstormers' games were on the road, too.
The defense has generated no turnovers, no quarterback hurries, and just one sack. I have no idea how they calculate "pass defense efficiency," but the Rush are dead last in that category, too. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 75 percent of their passes against Chicago.
Yardage-wise, they're roughly in the middle of the pack -- ranked No. 8 out of 14 teams, allowing 293.5 yards per game -- but they just can't seem to get off the field and keep opponents out of the end zone.
Special teams aren't faring any better. Chicago ranks last in the league in kickoff coverage. For the second week in a row, they coughed up a touchdown on a net recovery during a kickoff. Against Spokane, the Rush also allowed a kickoff to be returned for a touchdown -- a 55-yarder by Terrance Sanders to start the second quarter.
This is not how games are won, and this certainly isn't what football fans in Chicago are used to.
It's not surprising that Rush fans are feeling frustrated, as evidenced by attendance at Allstate Arena dropping from 6,026 in Week 1 to just 3,108 in Week 2. (It probably didn't help having a home game on Easter Sunday, either.)
I have no doubt that the players, coaches and front office are feeling frustrated, too. I've been around head coach Bob McMillen enough to know that hairs on his head are greying as we speak, and I can imagine what a conversation with jack linebacker Kelvin Morris would sound like.
The Rush travel to take on the San Antonio Talons (0-1) on Friday, and a road trip might be just what the doctor ordered. Get away from home for a little while and try to put the last several months behind them.
It'll help, too, that the Talons offense struggled in their season opener, putting up just 240 yards of offense and 42 points against the San Jose SaberCats.
Just as one game is too small of a sample size to accurately assess San Antonio, two games aren't enough to start panicking about the Rush, but this trip to the Lone Star State is looking like the perfect opportunity for Chicago to get back on track.
Or at least show significant improvement.
(To see more of Michael Glaskin-Clay's outstanding photos from the Rush/Shock game, click here.)
I have a friend named Peter Affrunti, and he's been robbed.
Peter is a special needs man in the Chicago area who is an avid fan of the Arena Football League, the Chicago Rush, the Chicago Slaughter, and indoor football in general. Some of his greatest joys in life include going to games, talking to players, visiting with friends and fans, and collecting photographs and autographs from players and coaches. Pete knows a ton about the indoor game.
A year or so ago, he came up with the fantastic idea of creating a Facebook group where arena and indoor football fans and players could come together and chat, share pictures, talk a little trash, learn from the past and present players, get insight from others, and share our love of the sport.
The group was an instant -- and smashing -- success. The last I checked, it had somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 members. Four thousand. Peter spent hours and hours in that group, chatting with players and fans, asking questions to generate discussion, sharing his wealth of knowledge of the game, and enjoying the phenomenal response to his creation.
Requests poured in daily from people wanting to join the group, and Peter can't be in front of his computer screen 24/7, so in an effort to include everyone in the fun even faster, Pete appointed a handful of fans as administrators of the group -- able to add people to the group, make changes to the page settings, intervene when Pete's desire to keep the group clean and civil was forgotten, etc.
Recently, a fan of the Jacksonville Sharks tricked Peter into letting him become an administrator of the Facebook page. Almost immediately, the fan kicked several people out of the group, including all of the other administrators.
This guy is nothing more than a fan of the Sharks. The Sharks organization had absolutely nothing to do with his actions, is in no way, shape or form to blame for this, and from what I understand through other fans who have been raining phone calls and e-mails down on the Sharks' front office today, the team is none too happy about what this fan did. Kudos to the organization for recognizing what a lousy thing this is.
The fan has now turned the group into a Sharks-only enterprise, blocking all of the people he kicked out, and setting it as "secret" -- making it invisible on Facebook to those not in the group.
Peter was robbed of his pride and joy while he slept.
It didn't take long for a group of Rush fans to realize what had happened and know how badly it would devastate Pete when he awoke and discovered it. One fan contacted Pete's father in an effort to soften the blow. A new Facebook group was created, and fans plugged into the arena/indoor football network and sounded the alarm.
The response has been outstanding and heart-warming.
In less than 12 hours, 1,260 players and fans from all over the country representing fandom in teams from all over the AFL and a variety of indoor leagues have joined the new group. Pictures are being posted, discussions are going on, questions are being asked and answered, and Pete appears to be back in good spirits.
It overwhelms me that in a single afternoon and evening, Pete has already recovered over a quarter of the people who mean so much to him and who were stolen from him in the middle of the night. The supportive comments in the new group have propped Pete up after one person singled him out to rob him of something so important to him. Without all of that support and rush to his aid, Pete's spirits could have been shattered.
Hijacking a Facebook group like that is a really crappy thing to do to anyone. It's exponentially worse when that person has special needs -- as was common knowledge in the old group. I can't even begin to fathom why this guy decided to sucker Pete into making him an administrator and then steal his community from him. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it.
Fans and players who have already swarmed to the new group, you folks are AWESOME!! It is such a blessing that Pete is so well thought of that people are stampeding back to him as soon as they hear about what happened. You folks reaffirm my faith in humanity.
You also reaffirm my belief that arena and indoor football fans are truly a special bunch.
Are you interested in joining Pete's new Facebook group? Just click here.