Opinion: Writing cheques

The Leicester Falcons made an announcement on their official website on Tuesday 22nd Jan. It read like this:

Leicester Falcons American Football team has formalised a mutually beneficial partnership with the neighbouring University of Derby (UoD), plus leading USA University, Baker from Kansas – to significantly improve scholar player recruitment and coaching standards.’

It was released of course on Double Coverage, who are part owned by the owner of the Falcons organisation. But what does this mean for the UK game. Well firstly, the Falcons posted details of what the deal would mean for both themselves and the University of Derby:

Football wise, the US scholar athletes will play for the Falcons during the UK Premier League summer season (plus help coach their U17s and U19s) and then transition into the UoD team and the BUCS season from September – or vice versa.

How will this impact the UK game, in particular the Premiership North, the integrity of the game and more importantly, the expectations for the season?

Who are Baker University?

Baker University Wildcats currently play in the NAIA league, Heart of America Athletic conference. They have had one trip to the NAIA National Championship game in 2016. For those not aware of College Football, there are numerous leagues within NCAA football. The generally accepted rankings of these leagues are (from best to worst):

  • Division 1 A
  • Division 1 AA
  • Division 2
  • Division 3
  • NAIA
  • NJCAA
  • CCCAA

Baker are a fifth tier University, with a small campus. The NAIA mainly serves those Universities that are significantly smaller than others. The NAIA normally provides 1 or 2 draftees per year to the NFL and far more undrafted players. This is largely due to the teams being less willing to take an opportunity on the players who they believe haven’t played in big time schools. Notably in 2016 though, Baker had five of its players selected for the All American NAIA team, something only one other team (Morningside) has accomplished. Notably in that 2016 All American team was Logan Brettell, whose Instagram showed him working out with members of the Leicester Falcons.

Logan Brettell pictured with members of the Leicester Falcons team, from his instagram @loganbrettell_11

Will this have an Impact?

Before I speak about the impact these moves may have on the Senior league, it’s important to at least reference the impact on the BUCs league. Honestly, Derby University have an American Head Coach, UWE have their imports, Durham had Americans, Stirling had Americans by all accounts. Does it really matter? No, because the University league should be use to this by now. For that reason, I’ll choose to ignore the University Leagues. The best teams will get better, everyone else will eventually probably convince Americans to either help coach or gain a masters at their ‘Prestigious’ institution.

The Premiership is slightly different though. Americans on premiership teams do stand out, in that they’ve played the game for a long time. But honestly, the current set up sees very few Americans playing for the simple reason, that there are paid leagues on the continent. Americans playing in the UK more than likely are here for work. Bury as an example had so many Americans because they were stationed at the nearby US Air Force base. Student Visas importantly have a maximum five-year length, which means that afterwards players would have to apply for work visas. The biggest issue with players wishing to study and use their student visa to remain in the UK is that they may at no time work as a sports coach.

Visa rules from the UK government website explicitly prohibit working as a sports coach

So contrary to what many commented on the Double Coverage post as an example, it would be illegal for the Falcons to pay the students any money for their coaching. They would instead have to work elsewhere during the summer to make any money. Importantly, this means that it is unfair to say that those who play for the Falcons and Coach are doing so in any capacity except for voluntarily. This should be viewed positively, as the American players who study at Derby will be helping to expand American football in the UK for FREE. In turn, the players themselves cannot be paid on a student visa to play football.

Expectations

So, having seen that the accusations of paying for players seems unfair, the next part to focus on is whether this will have an impact on what is expected of the Falcons. Following an extremely successful unbeaten season, they entered the premiership with perhaps low expectations from people like myself.  A 0.500 record would be expected for a team that played at a high calibre, with maybe results swinging this way or that to either increase or decrease that. The Titans promotion and immediate entry to the post season was not a fluke, but was highly unusual. It would certainly have been a bit much to ask the Falcons to not repeat the Titans feat, by beating everyone (except maybe the Phoenix) to sit in 2nd. But offseason moves have happened since my first prediction. Tamworth’s Pat Daley and Will Hobbs have departed for Europe, meanwhile Manchester haven’t announced any major departures. Time will tell, but the Falcons have already added to their offensive roster. If they add numerous Americans, players from the Prem via transfer and an All-American QB, there must be an expectation that they will go from having no pressure to win, but begin to creep towards favourites. How this pressure will impact the team is yet to be seen, but with enough additions it’s hard to play the underdog.

Will this set a trend?

The last thing that I’m going to end on, is whether or not this will impact how other teams begin to think. Leicester Falcons have had a strong connection with Derby University for a number of years now. Current Head Coach Taylor Brown was a Falcon and Braves player, Noel Cassar was the Head Coach at Derby University before he was the Falcons’ Head Coach. Many of the coaching staff from Derby are also Falcons coaching staff, many of the Falcons players are Derby alumni. The reality is that the Universities can provide something the senior teams can’t. A way to import talent from abroad.

These close links between teams and Universities has a number of benefits, it gives a clear progression from BUCs to Senior league. There are possibly a number of reasons why Derby University has been chosen over the two Universities in Leicester, but that doesn’t mean other senior teams can’t forge these links with Universities closer geographically. Will this also influence how BAFA chooses to enforce its rules? An import who receives financial assistance from their University will not be breaking any rules, but may impact how that team performs, possibly significantly. The other option is that teams simply weather this out as has always been the case. Many teams were known to take part in underhanded dealings and it isn’t hard to find players who will admit they were paid by organisations in the past. But even these teams saw a decline, with new fresh teams taking over. Only time will tell.

Edit: Following news that Baker University was parting ways with Head Coach Mike Grossner for Code of Conduct violations, we asked the Leicester Falcons whether this might impact their plans. They responded that the impact to their plans would be, ‘None whatsoever our partnership is with Baker not coach Grossner. We have a great relationship with coach Thoren and Coach Morse. From when our coaching team spent a week embedded in their coaching team. Please feel free to reach out for anymore FACTS Then you won’t have to speculate.’

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