League-approved bye for Carolina causes heartbreak for players of the struggling Peach State Cats
The Carolina Energy will start their 2019 AAL playoff campaign with a controversial bye, one that comes with a social media firestorm.
After the Energy were unable to solidify a date at their arena, the Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, the Energy elected to take a bye for the opening round. This came as a shock to their would-be opponent, the Peach State Cats as well as fans across the league in various AAL and indoor football forums.
But according to AAL Commissioner Tony Zefiretto, this was the approved format and that all four division winners were able to take the bye and that the Carolina Energy decided weeks ago that they would take it.
“The league sent out an email a couple weeks ago about their preference and all four teams responded to host a home game and it headed in that direction,” Zefiretto said. “Shortly thereafter as they were confirming their home game, the Charlotte hockey team made the playoffs and had to take away dates. So the Energy elected to take the bye at that time.”
AFT has verified that the email was sent from the official league email account and that the option of taking the bye was available to all four divisional leaders through another division-leading team in the league.
The primary tenant of Bojangles’ Coliseum is the Charlotte Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Checkers made the playoffs and are now fighting for the Calder Cup in a best-of-seven series final with the Chicago Wolves. While arena availability has been fluid given the deep postseason run by the Checkers, the series is in Chicago for Saturday. However if a team with a better record than the Checkers made the finals, that specific game in the series would have been in Charlotte.
Of the other three divisional leaders, the Carolina Energy will be the only team taking the bye. West Michigan and West Virginia will host their opponents on Saturday night, while the Carolina Havoc had to move their game to Tuesday due to arena scheduling.
The AAL has no official playoff format in their rules, as Zefiretto said that owners had input in how the playoffs would take shape during the league meetings.
“When you have your league meetings, the initial response was to say everybody would make the playoffs. They all have this vision of participating in the playoffs, and they should have that or not being in the business,” Zefiretto said. “We have elected just to wait and see how things played out. It was the precedent in the past and we’re always open to change.”
This year’s playoffs are based on divisions for the league, which changed after more teams were added late in the offseason. Those divisions eventually lost shape as different teams folded during the year. But one team tried to take advantage of the opportunity and made a surprising push to be the second seed in their division: the Peach State Cats.
The Cats had a big win in their season finale against the Carolina Cowboyz, but lost some big games this year. Their 90-0 loss to the Energy is the biggest point disparity in the league this season and they walked off the field at halftime when they were down 30-0 to non-league opponent, the Southern Steam.
Peach State also had numerous off-the-field issues. The Cats social media pages posted a photo of team owner Tim Freeman, alleging that he was a “habitual liar” and did not pay players. The pages eventually removed the posts, saying that there was a hack. Multiple staff members from other AAL teams also claimed that Freeman requested money to help with travel expenses so Peach State could play road games. AFT verified that these staff members assisted in travel arrangements for opponents, but kept their names private as they expressed concerns about speaking on the subject.
Freeman did not respond to an interview request. Freeman did post on both his personal and team Facebook pages that Carolina was awarded a bye by the league.
This statement came days after a different post was made by Peach State quarterback Chris Payne. Payne publicly posted in an AAL Facebook group asking about travel information for their playoff game against the Energy. Payne and the rest of the players did not know about the possibility of the bye and were trying any route for information.
For Payne, the post was absolutely necessary as the Cats changed as an organization throughout the season.
“As the quarterback I (rallied) the team back together and took player operations in my own hand,” Payne said. “I organized practice and players meetings. Tim Freeman had to speak to the coaches, who spoke to me to find out if players was going to show up to practice or the games.”
Payne’s responses corroborated the claims that Peach State could not pay for certain expenses through the season. The new uniforms that the Cats had late in the season came from a player that paid for them out of pocket. Players from folded Georgia Doom joined the team and the Cats had their strongest performance of the year in their finale. It was the win they needed for what they thought was a playoff berth.
“The only reason I kept the team together because Freeman told me we will have a legit shot at the championship,” Payne said.
That’s not a chance that the Cats will ever have thanks to the bye.
But even after the bye was solidified, the posts made by Payne sparked a number of discussions about the informal playoff format, the lack of communication between ownership and players and continued to spiral into more and more allegations of impropriety, regarding favoritism, connections between league officials and specific teams and potential mergers with different leagues.
Zefiretto says he’s been accused of favoring every team in the league at some point over the last two years, and “vehemently denies” any claims found on Facebook.
This is not the first of faults for the AAL on social media. Earlier this year, comments appeared saying that players for both the New England Bobcats and Burgh Defenders both were “scared to comment” against their organizations for not paying players or providing basic medical services during their games. This was allegedly due to a clause in their contract about not providing negative comments.
Zefiretto said that a sample contract was given to each team regarding improper use of social media to spread untrue statements about the league or teams. He did say that teams were able to modify the contracts if they deemed necessary and that each franchise had different contracts.
As far as the allegation into Peach State, Zefiretto admitted that he was looking into it, but declined further comment. However, he was very clear that the playoff situation and bye was very clear to Freeman.
“Communication and the ownership and the players, I can’t speak on that behalf. It was very clear to ownership,” Zefiretto said. “He put a posting out that didn’t tell the entire chain of events. I respect the fact that he’s protecting his franchise and players, but at some point you have to be accurate. It has to be accurate information.”
With the bye, the Energy will play the winner of the Cape Fear Heroes and Carolina Havoc game. Payne said in one of his postings that in his conversation with arena staff, “no more football would be played there this season. Zefiretto contradicted that, saying the arena would be available for June 16 at 4 p.m.. A Carolina Energy staff member has said that there is nothing confirmed either way about another home date.