The National Lacrosse League season is hitting its doldrums- mid-season, with little separation amongst teams, a lack of storylines and an upcoming All-Star Game that will feature less hits than a Roy Halladay summer outing.
But, fear not: there's drama. High drama. And subterfuge. To wit: the Edmonton Rush, for the second time in a year, have acquired a high-profile star who's refusing to report, and it looks like the floundering team is going to be forced to again to go begging for any big-name player who wants to come to the City of Champions.
We'd be remiss if we didn't point out the biggest problem with the NLL: it's an old boys club. The general managers have been in their respective positions for a good long time, unless the GM is also the owner (Rochester), an employee of the group that bought the team (Calgary) or non-existent (Minnesota). The coaches circulate from team to team, and the only guy who ever left the league front office in the last 10 years was vilified after the fact for the horrendous crime of making money off trying to grow the league.
So it's hard to say there's a real victim in the league's latest fiasco, other than the Canadian sports fan. Fortunately for Eh Game, that's victim enough.
The scenario is this: the Edmonton Rush, looking to make a splash at the gate and on the floor, pulled off one of the biggest blockbuster deals in the NLL's history last summer, trading captain and Reebok cover boy Brodie Merrill to Philadelphia for a slew of first-round picks and Athan Iannucci.
Iannucci is the NLL's single-season goal-scoring leader with 71; he's also something of a headcase. He changed his name after finishing his junior career (From Jon to Athan); he lost his last year of NCAA eligibility for playing in Canada's summer leagues. He's played on three summer league teams in the last four years, and held out in Edmonton after the trade in a contract squabble despite struggling to return to anything approaching stardom since a knee injury sidelined him for the entire 2010 NLL season.
So the Rush, in need of star power and a new face to market around, had neither as Iannucci held out this season. It was a slap in the face to the Rush, a struggling team that could see each season as its last. Attendance is low, morale is lower, and the team struggles daily for relevance in a crowded Edmonton sports market.
Last week, it looked like there was hope on the horizon, as the Rush finally shipped Iannucci's rights off to Washington for Paul Rabil. Rabil is the US poster boy for lacrosse, pretty and a Johns Hopkins graduate and sought after by advertisers. The New York Times wrote about him - in the fashion section.
To Rabil's credit, he jumped at the chance to play in the NLL in 2008, at a time when other high-profile Americans were passing up the indoor game. In his three seasons, Rabil's progressed to something between a decent-scoring forward and a point-producing defender, but he hasn't broken through the way many thought he might. Nobody outside of the league's marketing department would call him a bona fide star. In Edmonton, Rabil might have had the chance to spread his wings a little more.
We'll never know, because Rabil, too, is refusing to report. It turns out, according to Edmonton coach and general manager Derek Keenan, that the Rush weren't allowed to talk to Rabil to find out if he'd show up, and he quickly affirmed everyone's worst fears by demanding a trade back east, nearer to his Maryland home.
The Rabil holdout comes on the heels of the end of another prolonged holdout, as Anthony Cosmo, who was picked up by Minnesota in a dispersal draft last summer, was finally traded to Buffalo last week. Cosmo, possibly the league's best goaltender, had demanded a trade closer to his Orangeville home, and had never reported to Minnesota. The Swarm instead has turned to two rookies between the pipes. Instead of a starting goalie, they got two first-round draft picks.
So the question here is, are the ramifications severe enough for players who hold out? Should Cosmo, Iannucci and Rabil be able to hold teams hostage? There are many arguments for and against in pro sports, but few of them apply to the NLL. The salaries aren't big enough to merit discussion of whether a player's losing significant dollars by holding out. For example, even at the league maximum, Cosmo and Iannucci have lost a maximum of about $13,000 for sitting out thus far. Is there really any question whether they'll make up that money from their new teams? And the inconvenience factor is thrown around a lot, but really, the NLL offers very little nuisance. The biggest complaint is that some players have to spend their whole weekend either traveling or playing. It's not comparable to other sports where families are uprooted and friends are lost.
The onus isn't really on the players, but there's obviously a disconnect between the players' representatives and the league itself. the hidden issue here is in the perks; with base salaries set across the league, the negotiation comes down to travel expenses, promotional appearances, and other arrangements designed to get a player as much extra cash as possible.
The NLL seems happy to let these issues play out as some free market concept; thing is, it's not that at all. From the entry draft to prohibitive maximum salaries and strictly-regulated practice times, the NLL is supposedly set up to ensure a level playing field for all teams, regardless of geography. Meanwhile, the players' agents - and one in particular, Chaka Bainbridge - seem to think their role is less like a league-builder and more like Drew Rosenhaus.
Of course a big-name American would want to play in Philadelphia instead of Edmonton; all the NLL's rules are supposed to give teams like the Rush a fair shot at competing. While players like Iannucci, Rabil, and Kyle Rubisch in 2010 (all Bainbridge clients, by the way) held out for more money or better personal conditions, the league not only stopped growing; it lost three teams and 75 players' jobs. It's not hard to imagine that Edmonton will be next, despite owner Bruce Urban's optimism.
Sitting high in the rafters of Rexall Place, Bruce Urban's view of his Edmonton Rush lacrosse team comes with a price — something he knows plenty about.
"I like to sit in different places and listen to what people are saying," said Urban, who has lost $5.5 million on his dream team since he bought the franchise in 2006.
"But when I sit up high and look down on the empty seats I get a not-so-subtle reminder that there is a lot of work to be done to fill this building.
Meanwhile, Bainbridge is on record with his disdain for players who don't get agents, and the salaries of the league's executives. His goal, explicitly, is to get the most for his players — and if that means sacrificing the best interests of the league as a whole, so be it.
Still, it's not the agent's job to make sure the league succeeds. So if Iannucci and Rabil, and their agent, don't care about Edmonton, who does? The Rush traded their star for a player's rights, and were rebuffed — twice. Urban and Keenan are now basically shopping Rabil to any team with a player who'll show up in Edmonton. And the NLL's sitting quietly by, letting it happen.
How to solve it? There's a simple four-step plan.
Players receive a 1-time, 25% salary bonus for being traded. This will compensate them for the negligible impact of having to fly five hours instead of three, or having to fly instead of driving to home games.
Teams must be allowed to confirm with players if they'll report before a deal is finalized.
If a player under contract refuses to report, he's suspended for the entire season without pay. His rights can't be traded until the end of the season.This will stop teams from picking up players and letting them sit until a deal can be found.
If a player refuses to report, the player/s acquired in return must sit out as well.
It sounds harsh, and there are plenty of arguments in return.But if the NLL, its board of governors, or its executives have any plans to protect the league's lesser teams from being raided, we have yet to hear them.
On the other hand, if John Grant, with a newly-started business, a wife and a 2 year-old child, can adjust from Rochester to Colorado, and guys like Colin Doyle, Matt Vinc and Brodie Merrill can put in their time out West despite the inconvenience to their careers back home, there's very little excuse for the NLL to allow Edmonton to be held over a barrel just because it would make it easier for Rabil to run his camps.
Unfortunately, the problem with an old boys club is, nothing changes until the old boys have left.
For more lacrosse and NLL coverage, follow Andrew McKay on Twitter @apmckay