Dallas' Awesome Australian Rules Football Club is at the Center of an International Scandal [Updated]

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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.

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6 comments
facepalm
facepalm

The worst thing out of all of this, is it comes as a great dissapointment to the teams who did excellent down there and didn't get a chance to be named champions.  Now it's a "Vacant Title", which doesn't sit well with those teams who outscored others by large margins in earlier matches.  Calgary Kangaroos came down and played outstanding, exciting footy -- as did the New York side and others.  Unfortunately this incident and it's blame sits squarely upon Sutherland and the Dallas team, and no article trying to find sympathy in an obvious cheat will ever gain my respect.

El_Rey_in_Dallas
El_Rey_in_Dallas

1. We didn't seek out a "ringer" to play at Nationals; Sutherland was already moving to Dallas with his wife (who is from here), and he contacted us in June or July to inquire about playing with us when he got here.
2. We were wrong in not going through the proper channels to get Sutherland eligible for Nationals. There is a waiver process; we failed to use it.
3. We got caught, and were punished for it
4. We accept the punishment and are moving forward in the best interest of the Dallas Magpies and the USAFL; that means sitting out Nationals this year, continuing to build the club, and coming back stronger in 2014 to prove that 2012 wasn't a fluke.

1234qwer
1234qwer

The Magpies knowingly cheated.  To me that's enough said.  But, if you are the Magpies' team leaders and still don't seem to understand why everyone else is so pissed... here you go.

1) The other USAFL players are also all regular folk with day jobs as "as lawyers or businessmen or engineers" who paid out of pocket to travel across the country to what they thought would be a fair competition.  The Magpies leadership and players knew they had brought in a semi-professional player who had not qualified to give themselves an edge and deprive the rest of a fair competition.

2)Not EVERYONE is cheating, there have been allegations in the past, but no one has been caught.  Claiming that you know others have cheated and somehow that exonerates you is childish.

3) If the only punishment were to vacate the title, then you'd just try the same thing again next year and hope you don't get caught.  If you don't get caught... you win, if you do get caught... you vacate a title that you would never have had a chance at without cheating in the first place.

As one of the many people the Magpies cheated... I know I speak for many when I say... Shut up, grow up, and take the punishment you deserve with any shred of integrity you might have left.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

wait, now Im confused, they got banned for using a ringer, but in next years tourney, individual guys can play for other teams just not as a team, isnt the other team then bringing in a ringer?

Sharon_Moreanus
Sharon_Moreanus topcommenter

Nothing new here. Keep moving.

This was reported 4 months ago.

Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised

@ScottsMerkin Yes, and they all want Jason Sutherland. The league knew Dallas brought a ringer before the tourney began. Despite the tourney rules stating that any eligibility questions must be resolved prior to gameplay, the league decided to act after the tourney ended.

Ringers have been used in the USAFL since the beginning, but this is the first time in 15 years they decided to act.

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