A ringing need to do right thing

Whatever the odds on the Spokane Shock winning an Arena Football League title this summer, here’s a safer bet:

They’ll be wearing rings before the 2009 champs get theirs.

This is a sad – not tragic, just sad – bit of business left over from the death of the old arenafootball2 league, whose last gasp breathed life into a new AFL. In fact, the score of the final ArenaCup – Spokane 74, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 27 – hadn’t yet been inked into the books when the maneuvering and machinating began, with a few af2 franchises scrambling into lifeboats and the rest drowning at sea.

Ten months later, Ryan Belcher savors the warm memories of a championship season and recoils from the sour taste of the nothing-to-be-done shrug he gets from his old team about what became of the traditional commemorative rock.

“First we were told we’d get them around the beginning of the year,” the former Shock lineman said. “Then it was February. Then ‘wait until April.’ Now there’s nothing and all we’re told is that it’s a league issue.

“It feels awkward to have to ask for something you think you’ve earned.”

OK, maybe you’re thinking, “Rings? For minor league indoor football?” And, no, the ArenaCup was never the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, who’s to say it doesn’t mean more to players who put it all out there for $200 a game – now $400 and up in the new league – than to the NFL millionaires butting heads for bling that costs a fraction of what they buy for themselves.

In any case, af2 made allowances for such a reward. It just didn’t deliver.

“The rings were supposed to be funded by the playoff teams in af2,” Shock CEO Brady Nelson explained. “You contribute a dollar per ticket sold – for our playoff run we contributed $30,000 for rings.”

Which was more than enough to buy a snazzy set of brass knucks.

“But then the league started winding down into bankruptcy,” he continued, “and by the time (the ringmaker) gave the bill to af2, there was no af2.”

And as af2 splintered, some clubs “didn’t feel obligated to finish off their bills,” Nelson said. This included things like the final checks to players and medical claims. The teams left standing inherited the tab, which remains “in the low six figures.” Any contributions to the bling fund have long since gone to cover other obligations and the rings remain in the warehouse at J. Lewis Small Company in Chicago, though Nelson holds out a dubious conviction that all debts will someday be settled.

“I feel bad for the players,” Nelson said. “Frankly, though, in everyone else’s mind, it’s not a priority to buy rings for the team that obliterated them.”

But as Belcher sees it, that’s the point.

“I didn’t play for the league,” he said. “I wore the Spokane jersey.”

Countered Nelson, “He did play for the league.”

Really? So the final score of the title game was “League 74, League 27”?

That’s certainly a message the current players would be wise to digest, not that the club’s everyone’s-disposable signals haven’t been loud and clear. Yet in the next breath after that bit of hairsplitting, Nelson offered that “eventually, if we have to buy them ourselves, we’ll buy the rings – even though we’ve already done that twice over.”

Eventually. Eventually is the serum for killing goodwill.

Obviously, the Shock have been victimized here, too, at least in a sleep-with-dogs-wakewith-fleas sort of way. And it continues.

“I know some of the (2009) players heard we had the rings and their current coaches are saying they didn’t get them because they’re not playing for us now,” Nelson said. “That’s just not true.”

But it’s rather hollow for the club to trumpet, as it does constantly, its commitment to achievement when it won’t come through with the symbol of that achievement, just as it’s unseemly to grumble about costs when you’re announcing 10,000 paying customers every game. Sheesh, hold a few bake sales, do some car washes, impose a face-paint surcharge on all the superfans – scrape together the dough somehow.

“You don’t want to be petty,” said Belcher, who gave up the indoor game this year to return to his Oregon home and help raise a daughter, “but at the same time, you want to be recognized and know that your work was appreciated.”

When the Shock returned from Las Vegas with their championship last August for a celebration at team headquarters, nose tackle Frank Morton asked – of no one in particular – “How big are the rings going to be?”

“How big do you want?” shot back general manager Adam Nebeker.

How about as big as ownership’s gratitude?


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