Editor’s Note: Although this was first publish almost three years ago, it remains as relevant now as it was then.
Last year, the National Gridiron League—an organization slated to become Australia’s first fully professional American football league with competition scheduled to commence in October of 2016 —issued a press release announcing the “postponement” of league play until October of 2017.
What followed the July 31 announcement was a whirlwind of anger and disappointment, primarily among the players and coaches contracted by the league who had planned their careers, futures, and lives around what they had been assured was a rock-solid timeline. The individual grievances ranged from those who had quit their jobs and moved out of their apartments to others who had purchased flights and leased homes on the other side of the world in anticipation of their families joining them in this new and exciting phase of their lives.
As an outside observer of the NGL—one with friends and colleagues who had committed to this new venture—I constantly found myself wincing whenever the topic arose in conversation. It was as if I was watching one of those Jimmy Kimmel television sketches where parents execute cruel Christmas pranks against their children. The NGL had promised its players and coaches a new pony, but what they delivered on July 31 was dad’s dirty sock with a ribbon tied around it.
The Jimmy Kimmel analogy may seem like a poor or insensitive parallel equating talented players and coaches to naive children, but that is not the intent. American football—particularly of the international variety—elicits a level trust and good faith out of grown men who under most circumstances would be much more guarded. Call it desperation, desire, ambition—whatever it is that pushes us to take gigantic risks for the opportunity to travel to Europe, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere to play or coach the game we love—it is these emotions that are unfortunately exploited by certain individuals and organizations.
I learned this lesson the hard way in 2013 when I was flown to Brazil as one of the new head coaches for the upstart Liga de Futebol Americano—the Brazilian version of the NGL. I witnessed first hand the step-by-step exploitation of athletes’ emotions, desires, and dreams. As a human being, nothing will make you value integrity more than witnessing the destruction of a person’s personal or professional life at the hands of deceitful party.
But these are only two isolated examples. Let’s explore further what it means to have integrity in international American football and why it is so important.
Integrity as a Player
From 2008 to 2010, I took a break from football and spent some time working for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. During this period I became acquainted with a few people who worked for some of those mysterious three-letter government agencies. As with most other professions, their worlds were filled with bureaucracy, hierarchy and office politics. But one thing that stood out to me during our conversations was the open and official reference to an individual’s hall file.
Most companies keep standard files on their employees filled with very objective performance metrics and evaluations. Conversely, the hall file was essentially an employee’s reputation. A hall file is used to track how well one is liked and respected by their peers, and it bears a tremendous amount of weight on the progression of an individual’s career.
As a player or prospect in the world of American football overseas, the first thing many organizations will want to see is your standard file. Your resume filled with college statistics, awards, and strength and agility measurements. These may be the things that help you begin your career as an import, but what will progress your career is undoubtedly your hall file.
Your reputation is your resume. Remember, teams are investing in you not only as an athlete, but as a mentor to their local players and a representative of their organization. The chances that your current or former team will speak to your next prospective team and present them with your hall file are extremely high. Are you high-maintenance? Are you a malcontent? Do you work hard? Do you respect your teammates, coaches, and organization? Did you perform as well as advertised? Bear in mind that the manner in which you conduct yourself will also, to some degree, shape how the local players and managers perceive imports well into the future.
Remember that as an import player, you are more than just an athlete. You are an ambassador of this game who has the ability to be either a positive or negative force in the world of American football overseas. Operating with integrity is not only good for your career; it is good for the game and for the other players who hope to follow in your footsteps.
Integrity as an Organization
I have already touched on one example of organizational integrity in this article, referencing a couple of less than forthright leagues. But in the world of international American football, the umbrella of organizations is a broad and ever-changing category encompassing a variety of levels from federations and leagues all the way to teams and services.
The reason I group all of these entities together is that the rules are really the same. Whether we are discussing a league, a team, a representation agency, placement service or platform, the commodity that fuels each entity does not differ. Without athletes and coaches, no organization can exist. There would be no players or coaches to comprise a team; no teams to comprise a league; and no market for agencies, services and platforms.
This is the category where a lack of integrity is the most damaging, not necessarily because it is more common or inherent (that is up for debate), but because these collective entities tend to have the greatest, most-far reaching impact. One of the greatest obstacles inhibiting the growth of American football overseas is the exploitation of players and coaches by ill-intentioned organizations.
There are numerous agents and contract representatives operating in the world of international American football, and unfortunately some of them are nothing but charlatans and con artists. They see the sheer number of athletes who are desperate to continue their playing careers and know that their desire makes them vulnerable. As a rule, no player or coach should ever pay an agency before an actual service is rendered. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately too many unwitting athletes fall victim to this exact scheme.
On the team side, the system really rests upon a balance of power which, for the most part, is very effective. Teams are kept in check by players and are often at the mercy of their own hall files. Few things can impact the success of a team greater than the words of a respected coach or player. It is no coincidence that the teams who create strong, positive environments for themselves by treating their imports well tend to be the most successful programs in their respective countries.
Remember: if an organization is not honorable, you cannot expect them to honor your contract. There are, unfortunately, a few teams out there who disregard the comfort of their imports and the promises that are made to them. They negatively impact the game of American football by driving strong talent and good individuals away from their region and perpetuating the stigma of amateurism that is too often attached to the game of international American football. Teams, leagues, and other organizations who operate without integrity not only hurt the careers and lives of real individuals in the present; they also leave behind a negative footprint, creating unnecessary obstacles to be dealt with by any well-intentioned organization that may follow for years to come.
Integrity as a Coach
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of running a football camp in Vienna, Austria. The coaching staff of the camp was comprised almost entirely of individuals who I had worked with previously, with stops ranging from Ireland, Norway, and Italy to Poland and Brazil. But for a couple of the coaches at the camp, this was our first time meeting.
While conversing with one of the two coaches who I was meeting for the first time, my new acquaintance mentioned in passing that we had actually spoken previously. He said that he had messaged me while I was coaching in Brazil and enquired about a position on my staff. I was immediately embarrassed that I could not recall the encounter, but he quickly put me at ease by saying, “Don’t worry, you responded to me in a really nice way and I appreciated it.”
Any import coach should immediately understand the importance of those words. We have all been on the other side of the aisle and are familiar with the unrequited email. One of the most profound truths I have heard regarding my profession is that there are a lot of good football coaches who aren’t coaching football—the implicit point being that the choice to coach is not theirs, rather they do not possess the opportunity. And when you narrow that category down to imports coaching American football overseas, the truth of that statement cuts even deeper.
As a coach, integrity isn’t a choice—it’s a responsibility. Any coach worth his salt respects this game and his profession too much to regard it as a luxury. We as coaches possess the capacity to be the single greatest advocates for the growth and development of American football internationally. We are providers of knowledge and insight to both ends of the spectrum—the American football professionals stateside who are intrigued by the international game and the organizations overseas working hard to develop the sport in a less receptive environment.
Offering our advice costs us nothing, and our time is not too valuable. A coach’s life may be busy, but for those of us working internationally, growing the game is part of that life. Nothing you do will leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth quite like “big timing” them—acting as if you are too high on the totem poll to answer their questions or engage in a brief conversation. This doesn’t mean that we are required to respond to every single email or Facebook message that pours into our inbox, but I always try to gauge the effort of the person contacting me. If they took the time to ask a meaningful question, I can take the time to draft an honest response.
Rewards Beyond Winning
Coaching football can either be the most rewarding or the most disappointing profession in the world depending on one’s perspective. As an American football coach overseas, we have to coach for something bigger than ourselves. If my career has taught me anything, it is that the nature of this game dictates that you will never receive equal return on what you put in. Winning is rewarding, but if you only coach to win then you will burn out very quickly. One of my greatest goals as a head coach is to win more championships than I have fingers to wear the rings on. But if this is the only facet of my profession that I find rewarding, those rings will be nothing more than driftwood in an endless sea of disappointment.
This is why we must treat integrity is a requirement, not a luxury. Nobody in Europe, Brazil, or Timbuktu is going to aid the development of this game other than the people living it—the players, the organizations, and the coaches. I wholeheartedly believe that the greatest strides in the growth and development of American football internationally are made when good people are brought together and engaged in a shared vision. So when I receive a message from a good coach or an honest player looking for an opportunity, my decision to respond will not be predicated on whether or not I can offer them a job.
For all I know, that same coach may one day be standing across the field from me in a new country or working alongside me at a camp in Austria. That player may soon be the mind behind a new platform aimed at developing American football overseas, or traveling around Europe documenting the stories behind the individuals engaged in our shared world. Most importantly, that player, coach, or person may be a man of integrity; someone who possesses a passion for growing our great game and doing so at the very frontiers of its existence; an individual who desires to create a space where this brand of American football not only exists but is truly able to thrive. Our game needs more of these people because without them, we’ll never really know how far we could have gone.