June 03, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury Like an Arena Football Fan Scorned

CLEVELAND, Ohio, May 31 -- I CAN ASSURE READERS I am becoming more like my father with each passing day. As the latest proof of this, I would note my extreme disappointment with the Arena Football League, which on Saturday evening single-handedly destroyed months of work in which I've tried to convince my immediate family that arena football is a legitimate sport, worthy of their support and attention.

You see, my father -- Mr Kepple -- does not like it when his investments do not pan out. I don't like it when my investments fail either. I especially don't like it when Mr Kepple spends a considerable amount of money to get the family fabulous seats for an AFL game, all in honor of his eldest son returning home for a weekend, and the game turns into a complete fiasco because of the referees officiating the game. In fact, it was the worst officiating I've seen in more than a decade of being a very passionate football fan -- including the Jan. 15, 2006 playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. In this case it not only cost the Cleveland Gladiators football team a victory over the hated Dallas Desperadoes, but perhaps a spot in the AFL's playoffs.

As Loyal Rant Readers know, I'm not even a fan of the team. My AFL loyalties lie with the Grand Rapids Rampage, which after a brief flash of glory earlier in the year is again in the league's basement. Furthermore, although I generally watch AFL games on television, my true loyalties are to the Manchester Wolves of the arenafootball2 development league. So it should be pretty clear that I don't have a dog in this particular hunt. However, as a Wolves season ticket holder, and someone who actually travels outside New England for the sole purpose of watching arena football, and someone who blogs about the sport, I do feel as if I have a vested interest in arena football and its future. Saturday's game did not provide a reasonable rate of return on that interest.

For readers unfamiliar with the particular fiasco I am discussing, I would direct you to The Plain Dealer's coverage of the game in question, which contains several enlightening quotes from the Gladiators' top brass, who rightfully blast the officiating. But here's the gist of it all.

Now you should know there were three arguably iffy calls in this game: one the officials were probably right about, one the officials' judgment could reasonably be questioned, and one in which the officials were flat out wrong -- to the point where everyone in the stadium knew it but them.

The first call happened immediately at the end of the first half, in which Dallas was leading 34-31 and had the ball in the waning seconds of the second quarter. Dallas QB Clint "Golden Boy" Dolezel -- whom even I must admit is a fine quarterback, even though I hate Dallas -- threw a deep ball on the last play. One of Cleveland's defensive backs managed to intercept it deep in Gladiator territory, and ran it back for a touchdown. The crowd was electrified. The players were charged. It was an amazing and beautiful play. Yet the zebras called a clipping penalty against the Gladiators, negating the play and ending the half.

That was a heartbreaker. It was not, however, much of a clip -- at least in my judgment. It wasn't even a block from behind; it was a front block, more like a dive, in which the intent of the player was to try and slow up the defender trying to stop Cleveland's man from making a touchdown. Now on this one, the officials may well have been right -- but to me it seemed a bit much.

However, the officials were certainly NOT right when in the second half, Dallas was driving for a touchdown and their running back clearly fumbled the ball on the three yard line. After a scrum, Cleveland recovered it -- but this was negated after the braindead officiating crew somehow ruled Dallas' player was down by contact. The man was no more down by contact than I was in the thirteenth row. Furthermore, I was on the opposite side of the field and even I could see it was a clear fumble -- so how the officials thought the man was down by contact amazes me. When the replay was broadcast on the jumbotron, the crowd erupted in a massive tirade of hate and fury, because the call was so obviously wrong.

Now I can certainly understand that human beings make mistakes -- and spectacularly bad ones at that. But the next play did not help matters. The play on which the fumble was made was a third down, and thus Dallas was now facing a fourth down on which to make a touchdown. Cleveland successfully sacked Dolezel and got the ball back on downs. Or Cleveland would have, had not the refs called a defensive back for holding in the endzone. At this point, my reaction was, "You have got to be kidding me."

As Gladiators president Bernie Kozar put it later -- Bernie Kozar, ladies and gentlemen -- "I can't wait to see the replay on that one." Neither could I -- but sadly, our attempt to record the game at home proved unsuccessful. Perhaps the referees were correct in making that holding call, but it certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Anyway, as one might imagine, Cleveland lost and Dallas won. But the outcome of the game did not bother me. What really bothered me was the fact that I had spent months talking up the game of arena football to my skeptical family, and my family clearly left the game unimpressed with it, even if they were polite about the whole thing. The crappy officiating was the big reason why. I asked my younger brother -- who before the game had uncharitably described the sport as a "clusterfuck" -- whether he had enjoyed the game despite the officiating. His response was, essentially, that one could not separate the two. I can't blame him. And I am embarrassed. Greatly embarrassed.

OK, Ben. Deep -- breaths. Deep -- breaths. Bad air out, good air in.

I do have to give the Gladiators credit for putting on an excellent show regardless of the crappy officiating. I particularly liked the stunt where they blindfolded fans and gave them a chance to win a prize if the fans -- still blindfolded -- managed to stumble from the endzone to midfield, where they had to grab a helmet or something. Anyway, this proved exceptionally enjoyable when one of the excited fans took off like a shot from the endzone, only to run smack into the Gladiators special teams' unit heading out for a kickoff. Oops.

Also, I can assure the Gladiators their cheerleaders were a big hit. However, as a football purist, I am not a fan of having the cheerleaders cheer in the aisles. This is not to say I do not like the cheerleaders; I am a man, after all, and I am not going to complain too much if a pretty girl wearing very little is rallying the troops not fifteen feet from my seat. However, when the pretty girl obstructs my view of the football on the field, that's problematic. I am there to watch football, not dancing girls.

I do, however, have to give a demerit to the Gladiators' announcers, who did not manage the crowd as well as one might have hoped. True, the crowd itself was less interested in the game than one might have liked, but crowds can be massaged. The Manchester Wolves do an excellent job of this at their games and routinely get the crowd fired up on crucial third and fourth downs; but the Gladiators' man was off key in doing this. Improving this might help the team. I have been assured the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team also does a good job of this, and routinely goads the crowd through flashing the Pittsburgh Steelers' and Michigan Wolverines' logos on the scoreboard; perhaps doing that might really tick off -- I mean, fire up -- the crowd. Just a thought.

Also, now that I've vented my spleen, I would be remiss if I didn't note the Manchester Wolves are now 3-6 after upsetting the Albany Conquest and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers in back-to-back wins. Sadly, I have not been able to see the team carry out these wins. Like many football fans I am superstitious and now wonder if my presence at future games will jinx the team. Still, I do feel I should get out there and support my team, especially since it is now playing excellently and has learned some very important lessons. Plus, like all true sports fans, I don't let disappointments get me down. Here's to a victory against Florida on Friday night, and to the playoffs later this summer!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 3, 2008 12:58 AM | TrackBack

Ben – I actually enjoyed the game a great deal despite the lousy officiating. It was a fun evening and great to see some football after several months of being deprived of the world’s greatest sport. The cheerleaders were indeed outstanding (they can block my view anytime … at least so long as the Steelers aren’t playing … and the non-stop promotional activity during breaks in the action kept things moving along all the time. All in all, a very enjoyable evening.

Posted by: Swammi in Solon at June 4, 2008 07:07 PM
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