There was supposed to be professional football in Fort Wayne. Instead, there was a fight on the floor of a hotel conference room.
The National Gridiron League, which had planned to play its 2021 season in a bubble in Fort Wayne because of the coronavirus pandemic, no longer has plans to do so after a disagreement with the city of Fort Wayne over financial assistance from the city.
The decision left the league's players, who had already arrived Thursday in Fort Wayne to begin training camp – the league was scheduled to begin playing games May 1 – stranded in the city and looking for answers on who would pay for their transportation home and their hotel costs for the weekend.
Discussions over those questions took place at the Fairfield Inn on West Jefferson Boulevard on Monday during an hours-long meeting that became heated multiple times. The Journal Gazette attended the meeting.
When league president Joe McClendon III and an unknown woman who was assisting him in the meeting tried to leave the room to allegedly figure out a way to get the players some money for hotels and transportation, the meeting became heated and an intense physical altercation began between McClendon and one of the players. The two were separated after going to the ground, but another altercation began moments later before tempers cooled and the meeting broke up.
“I cry foul on this,” said David Drakeford, a player who traveled to Fort Wayne from Stillwater, Oklahoma. “I'm not showing my emotions, I'm speaking it, but I'm crying on the inside.”
Michael Coleman, the coach of the Indiana Blue Bombers, a team that was supposed to be based in Fort Wayne, called McClendon a “fraud.” He spent much of the afternoon Monday calling anyone he could think of to try to help get the players home.
“This scumbag ... he's now refusing to help these kids,” Coleman said. “(The players) have all their stuff in the fricking parking lot (of the hotel) like they're nobody,” he added. “This is unacceptable.”
Drakeford told The Journal Gazette on Monday night that McClendon had signed a paper promising to reimburse the players for hotel expenses. It is unclear if any of those expenses have been paid.
McClendon did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives from the NGL, including McClendon, have had multiple meetings with Fort Wayne city officials and representatives from Visit Fort Wayne in recent weeks with the goal of bringing their bubble to the city. In the course of those conversations, McClendon said he got the impression the city would provide financial help for the league in securing housing for the players.
The city and Visit Fort Wayne told The Journal Gazette firmly that there was no such offer. Visit Fort Wayne had offered to inquire at hotels about open rooms for the players and did so but did not offer financial assistance.
“Offers have been made to help the League get acquainted with the community and point them toward locations for games and housing,” city spokesman John Perlich said in a statement to The Journal Gazette. “As it relates to the League's housing needs, the City of Fort Wayne hasn't made any commitments and there are no agreements regarding this issue.”
The league had assured players when they signed contracts that their housing costs in the city would be paid. When the players arrived at their hotels Thursday, the league provided credit cards for the hotels to put on file. In the ensuing days, however, the league stopped paying for the rooms.
In an email sent Friday afternoon and provided to The Journal Gazette, Karen Britton, assistant general manager at the Courtyard Marriott in Fort Wayne wrote:
“The football league is no longer paying for the rooms. Please pack and vacate the rooms within the next hour. ... If you would like to pay for the room on your end, we will extend the same rate. ... We are very sorry, this must be frustrating. We have been working with the league, but unfortunately they have been unable to provide a method of payment.”
With no money from the city forthcoming, McClendon organized a protest with the players at Glenbrook Square on Saturday, during which the players chanted, “Keep your word.”
As it turned out, the city had not broken its word.
In a virtual meeting Monday with McClendon and players, the city and Visit Fort Wayne reiterated that there had been no offer of financial assistance, only the logistical assistance that had been provided.
“The rest of the meeting wasn't very cordial because they were under the impression they were getting financial assistance and they weren't,” said Visit Fort Wayne president Dan O'Connell.
One player who spoke to The Journal Gazette said he was out $910, including hotel and travel costs to the city. Another pointed out that he was only asking for half of what he had paid.
In the meeting, McClendon insisted that the league's schedule would still be played, likely within the coming months in a different city. Drakeford said McClendon told the players that he had received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government for $1.3 million.
“Guys, you're going to play,” McClendon said. “I have to play this year. I don't want to pay the f------ money back myself. ... This is not over. This is an adjustment. We have to play. Period. That money, I can't spend it any other way but on payroll or, guess what, they take (me) to jail.”
It is unclear whether McClendon actually received a PPP loan.
When it originally announced it would have a team in Fort Wayne in 2019, the NGL began selling tickets to Blue Bombers games. At least one customer to whom The Journal Gazette spoke Monday said, nearly two years later, he had still not been refunded the $700 he paid for the tickets at the time.
When The Journal Gazette contacted McClendon about the refunds in late April 2019, he said the refunds were a “time thing” and insisted the league was working on contacting everyone who bought tickets.
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