What the pro football world can learn from the AAF

The past 48 hours haven't left a lot of time for reflection about what the AAF has meant. The suddenness with which the Alliance was shut down by controlling owner Tom Dundon on Tuesday shook not just his own league, but business partners, investors, and yes, even the NFL. CBSSports.com spoke with numerous AAF personnel during this time and every one of them expressed how utterly blindsided they were. Everyone was in shock that this was truly the end. 

Assigning meaning to that type of event is hard, especially when emotions are still so raw. People's lives have been altered dramatically. In speaking to these people -- and there are a lot of them, earnest and hard-working -- there is both a tragedy and a source of inspiration in the AAF's likely demise. 

Let's start with the bad. Let's go ahead and rip off that band-aid. The AAF is a cautionary tale of how promises and decision-making affect people. This is a business, and it's a cut-throat one, but those words and actions have consequences. 

I cannot begin to tell you the number of people who gave up what they were doing and moved their lives to join the AAF. Yes, they are players, coaches and general managers, but they are also communications staff, video staff, equipment staff, trainers, front-office account managers, content creators, and other support staff whose names will never come up in the conversations about the Alliance. They took jobs, assuming the risks that come with a start-up company, and went all-in from the start. But they did so, as CBSSports.com was told by multiple sources, under the belief that that this operation could make it for the first two or three years. 

They are people like Al Lunsford, director of team communications for the Orlando Apollos. It's been a rough week for him, as he lost his grandfather and his job in the same week. While his situation is particularly sobering, there are hundreds of Al Lunsfords around the AAF. They're good people who really wanted this league to work. 

Now, almost all of them are unemployed, and in a few weeks, without health insurance. According to termination documents obtained by CBSSports.com, final paychecks will be sent out either Thursday or Friday, depending on location. After that, it's over. Even coaches and GMs on contract through the year are no longer being paid, and obviously, they did a year's worth of work over the past few months. What's more, as one assistant coach pointed out, it's no longer hiring season. Another head coach said he made it a priority to hire young, promising assistants so that they could advance their careers. The burden that is the feeling of guilt extends far down the AAF ladder. 

Players received (or will receive) one final game pay check, which hopefully at least gives them a buffer to hit the reset button. They're also able to sign with NFL teams, effective immediately, according to the AAF. Additionally, there was an exit strategy that came from the AAF last month with the season winding to a close. Included in this literature were instructions on how various departments within the AAF were to disband. For players, that meant finding their own travel arrangements home. However, players were given lodging accommodations through the AAF during the season, though some said they were stuck with massive hotel bills.

CBSSports.com was also told of a team support staff member who can no longer make rent. One GM ended a conversation by saying he was going to see what he could do to help support staff find new jobs. Another was driving to his stadium to try to help in any way possible. There are countless stories like these. 

The point of this beat is to cover the AAF as fully, accurately and fairly as possible. There's irony in the fact that the biggest story requiring the most sources of information is about the Alliance's downfall. You have to tell the story, but it's at the expense of people's lives. 

But I can also relay that every single person who spoke with CBSSports.com truly believed in what the AAF was trying to do. Forget the fan experience or the tech angle with the app, the AAF was about development. Not just for players, everyone: assistants, support staff, referees. Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel put it best when he said "Think about all the opportunities that could be afforded to different coaches whether it's a chance to be a head coach or to call plays for the first time. These are opportunities that may not otherwise be afforded because the stakes are too high to put somebody in [the NFL] that doesn't have experience. This is where you get experience."

That was after the Hotshots beat the San Antonio Commanders 23-6 in what would be the last AAF game. 

Still, practically everyone who shared their experiences expressed gratitude towards the opportunity to advance their career or get another shot at doing what they love. Therein lies the source of inspiration. It took every single member of the AAF, from CEO Charlie Ebersol, to investors and business partners, all the way down to the equipment staff for the Salt Lake Stallions, to believe in something. Without that belief, the AAF never even plays a down of football. 

That says something huge. Despite historically having a near-zero chance of sustained success, a start-up pro football league had a chance to make it because enough people jumped at the opportunity to try. Some leaps were bigger than others, but everyone involved left the cliffside. 

So naturally the fall hurts when it doesn't work. People are scrambling to find jobs, housing and basic necessities to live. That's a cold reality and it wouldn't have happened if no one cared. But if no one cared, what's the point of trying anything? 

They all have my respect for that. Every last one of them. 

And the system worked. Eight weeks was enough to show that there are players good enough to play on Sundays in the NFL this season. By Week 4 or Week 5, the on-field product was improving. Team chemistry was better and coaches were figuring out which personnel was the most effective. In the words of one GM, "every team was good at something." 

That's why I remain optimistic that a complementary football league one day will make it. It may not be the AAF, though the letter from Dundon to football operations staff did leave the door open for a second season. However, it would take a miracle investment and a hell of a lot of trust from a hell of a lot of people (fans included) to make it possible. 

As such, this is not a goodbye column. The story is not over, not by a long shot. There will plenty more to unpack because a lot of things went wrong for the AAF to shut its doors. But what's so great about the entrepreneurial spirit is that someone else won't be discouraged by those failures. If anything, they're lessons. That's how innovative people think and it was evident first-hand by the droves of bright minds involved at every level of the Alliance. 

So, yes, I'm a believer. It could happen as soon as next year when another league, the XFL 2.0, re-open its doors. Who knows, maybe Vince McMahon will have to shut them again for reasons we can't yet see. Or maybe it'll work. Because one of these days, someone is going to get it right. 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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