Nothing says American major league sports quite like labor strife, and so it was that the Arena Football League officially went big-time last week with the announcement that owners had voted to call off the 2000 season, which was to begin on April 17. They did so in response to a class-action antitrust lawsuit filed by the AFL Players Association on Feb. 4 in federal court in Newark, N.J., accusing the owners of conspiring to limit players' salaries and ability to move among teams.
The AFLPA filed a motion on Monday seeking a preliminary injunction against the cancellation. A federal judge will rule on that on March 14; barring a settlement, his decision could be the 14-year-old league's last chance at a season and, more important, at survival.
That the owners would take such drastic measures so soon after the AFL basked in the publicity of alum Kurt Warner's magical season with the Rams speaks volumes about the acrimony between the two sides. The hostility reached its apex in mid-January, when commissioner C. David Baker told players the 2000 schedule would be canceled unless they either formed a union (which the AFLPA isn't) or promised not to sue. By organizing, the players would be bound to collective bargaining with the league; they believe they can gain more in the courts. "The AFLPA wants players to have the freedom to negotiate for themselves, the freedom to switch teams, the freedom to make a salary that's not fixed," says Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer representing the AFLPA. "It's obvious that the owners are lashing out, trying to force the players to cave in by using the cancellation like a hammer."
An aborted season would be a huge blow to an organization that had gained credibility thanks to Warner's ascension and the NFL's recent purchasing of a minority interest. Moreover, the 18-team AFL has expanded into Chicago and Los Angeles, signed three-year television contracts with three networks (ABC, ESPN and TNN) valued at a total of $25 million and made a deal with SFX Sports Group to sell national sponsorships.
In the AFL's infancy, cost control was integral to its survival strategy—players even paid their own moving expenses when traded—but now, with teams worth up to $7 million, the AFLPA says player salaries averaging $25,000 are unacceptable. The owners aren't backing down. Said AFL spokesman David Cooper last week, "We've already started the very involved process of dismantling a season."