Not so long ago, the Dallas Magpies were perennial cellar dwellers in the U.S. Australian Football League, hovering near the bottom of the 35-team organization since the club was established in 1998. Then, something changed.
"How'd we get good so quickly? It's just chemistry, a good mix of guys," says Brenn Miller. "I can't really put my finger on one single person or one single thing, it's just a will to win."
They didn't just become good. They became the best. A Division III title in 2009 vaulted them into Division II. There, they cleaned up, won another title in 2011, and moved to the league's top tier. Last October, they reached the pinnacle of Australian-rules football in the U.S., beating the New York Magpies (yes, two Magpies) to take the Division I crown.
Their reign as USAFL champions lasted all of two weeks. On October 30, the league announced that its executive board had decided to vacate the 2012 title. An investigation had revealed the team had brought in a ringer for the championship championship tournament, an Aussie by the name of Jason Sutherland.
It didn't take much Googling to discover that, contrary to the claims on the Dallas Magpies' tournament paperwork, Sutherland had spent the season playing for the Central District Football Club in Adelaide Australia. "We looked at the games he was supposed to have played and quickly realized he couldn't have," Vanica told the Adelaide Advertiser, which picked up the story. "One of the games was on the same day he played for Central District."
In retrospect it was probably a stupid decision. Sutherland is a beast of a man, 6 feet, 7 inches tall and broad-shouldered with distinctive features. "He looks like the love child of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant," as Miller puts it. And, looks aside, he's really, really good at Australian football. During the championship game versus New York, he booted a 60-meter goal (the rough equivalent of a 60-yard field goal in American football) and was named the match's MVP.
Given all that, league officials were unlikely to look the other way, which they didn't. "This was such a blatant transgression," Vanica said. Multiple teams were calling the league "calling for something to be done."
The Magpies don't deny that they brought in a ringer; the evidence, after all, is pretty clear. What they take issue with punishment and the way it was meted out.
"The thing is that everybody does it," Miller says. "We know of multiple other teams that had ringers at the national tournament just this past year."
But the Magpies are the only team now marked with a scarlet letter, something Miller attributes in part to Sutherland's dominance but also to the fact that Vanica, the league president, plays for the USAFL powerhouse Denver Bulldogs. (Vanica says this has no bearing on the decisions of the executive board). In addition to the loss of the 2012 title, the team is barred from the 2013 tournament. This, in turn, prompted them to be barred from a tournament in Bordeaux, France (Vanica says that the major national leagues have reciprocal agreements to uphold each other's disciplinary decisions), and caused several teams to back out of planned matches.
Miller doesn't take issue with the decision to vacate the title but thinks the rest of the punishment is an overreach, particularly if the goal of the USAFL is to increase the popularity of the sport in North America.
None of the Magpies get paid. They all have day jobs, as lawyers or businessmen or engineers, and have to cover their own travel costs to out-of-town matches and tournaments. "I mean, we've built a winner here," Miller says. "These guys, they want to play. They want to win. I'm making a schedule, but I've got to give these guys some kind of carrot, something to play for."
Vanica stands by the punishment. The Magpies are still allowed to schedule matches and play their season, and individual team members can play in the national tournament for teams that are short-handed. The league is even sponsoring developmental clinics in Dallas as part of its commitment to grow the sport. Barring the club from the 2013 tournament was necessary. "This was so unprecedented ... the board felt that just taking the title away was not a big enough deterrent to not do this in the future. Event holds such [importance], If it's just the title clubs might say 'Yeah we'll take that chance."
Vanica says the USAFL is implementing a pilot player management system that will track players throughout the season and, ideally, keep teams from bringing in ringers in the future. That's come too late to help the Magpies, but Miller says they'll soldier on. As for Sutherland, he now lives and works in Dallas and is a permanent member of the Magpies' roster.
Note: This post has been updated with comments from league president Andy Vanica.