If the USFL folds after one season, then at least we’ll always have the “chicken-salad incident.”
The most memorable thing to come out of the first weekend of this USFL experiment in Birmingham was a player for the Pittsburgh Maulers getting fired from his team for an alleged argument over chicken salad.
All De’Veon Smith wanted was a slice of pizza, or so he claimed when called into a meeting with Pittsburgh coach Kirby Wilson and other staffers. But Wilson wasn’t there to hear Smith’s side of the story. Wilson was just there to cut one of his players in order to make a piece of really bad reality TV. The meeting aired on a show called “United by Football: A season in the USFL,” which is like a behind-the-scenes look at the league to accompany the games.
I was holding off on an opinion on the USFL until after the first week, but this is all starting to make sense. Fox’s script for the USFL appears to be football meets reality TV, which of course has been done before in the Birmingham-area and been hugely successful. The USFL is trying to be the pro version of MTV’s “Two-A-Days.”
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Now that I think about it, Fox and the USFL missed a golden opportunity in not hiring former “Two-A-Days” star Rush Propst to coach one of the teams. I’m being completely serious when I say that every game involving Propst would have probably sold out.
Instead, the Birmingham Stallions have Skip Holtz, who I thought maybe should have been fired at halftime of his first game. Holtz is fine, I guess, but Propst would have made this thing an instant hit.
Do I care about Smith being fired over chicken salad? Sorry, no I do not. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but apparently Smith had caused some problems before telling a USFL staffer that he had a problem with the food options provided by the league.
The Pittsburgh Maulers put out a statement on Twitter about the “chicken-salad incident” after the video clip of the meeting between Smith and Wilson went viral on the Internet. They of course made sure to plug the reality-TV style show on Fox:
“On the first episode of ‘United by Football,’ the weekly USFL docuseries on Fox, De’Veon Smith was shown on camera being cut from our team by Coach Kirby Wilson. The show captures hundreds of hours of film with the intent of providing transparency to fans, but unfortunately, much of the context was left out of this moment.
“Smith had violated three team rules in a 24-hour span, and in this particular incident, disrespected a cafeteria worker, which wasn’t captured on camera. Smith has subsequently reached out directly to Coach Wilson to apologize, and ask to be reinstated to the Maulers’ roster.”
Smith responded on Twitter by calling the Maulers a bunch of liars.
I have questions.
Is Smith going to be reinstated to the team because of lousy editing by the producers of the USFL reality TV show? There’s no proof he did anything wrong, so it only seems fair at this point.
Also, is there some kind of 24-hour window where players can break one or two rules and still be with their teams?
Finally, why the heck can’t players eat what they want to eat? Something doesn’t sit right with me on how the league is treating these guys. I spoke to a player over the weekend, and he told me that they are being charged $75 a day to stay at the hotels downtown. That’s messed up. It’s common practice for teams to pay for hotels for players during road trips, and even local soccer team Birmingham Legion FC gives their players the option of living in a subsidized apartment. In Europe, most basketball teams house the players.
Instead of paying $2,600 a month to live in a hotel, players are signing short-term leases together at apartments around town. Players are making $4,500 a week, and get an $850 bonus check for each win. The player who told me about his living arrangements said he was saving about $1,000 a month living in an apartment instead of a hotel.
If anyone visiting Birmingham needs a good recommendation on where to find quality chicken salad, then that’s easy. We know what Rush Propst would have done. Propst would have ordered all the chicken salad for his team from Diplomat Deli. No one turns that stuff down.
What makes a good chicken salad? I asked the co-owner of Diplomat Deli the secret, just in case the USFL wants to take some notes.
“Keep it simple,” said Joseph Hoskin, who, borrowing an awful sports cliché, has forgotten more about chicken salad than I’ll ever know in a lifetime. “No fruit, no nuts, and a little more mayo than you think.”
Despite the “chicken salad incident,” or maybe bolstered by it, the first weekend of the USFL seemed like a success for Fox and the league. The television ratings for the league’s inaugural game, the 28-24 victory for Birmingham over the New Jersey Generals, were strong with 2.9 million viewers watching between Fox and NBC. Attendance was poor for the games on Sunday, but it was Easter.
The big winner in all of this, of course, is Birmingham. The city is being showcased on national television every weekend, and the Birmingham Stallions received excellent support from fans for the first game. After what I saw with the first game, I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Game 2 for the Stallions will be a sellout. The team plays the Houston Gamblers (1-0) at 6 pm on Saturday, and there will be a lot of people in town for Sunday’s running of the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Birmingham can’t be expected to fill Protective Stadium for every league game, but it was a pleasant surprise seeing so many fans show up for the Stallions vs. Generals despite the rainy weather that day. Downtown was packed with cars, and the restaurants were full. The USFL said the official attendance for the game was 17,500, which seemed way off the mark. I’m not sure how they arrived at that figure, but there appeared to be more people in the stadium than what the league announced. The USFL said over 40,000 tickets were either sold or distributed.
The other USFL games this weekend (all at Protective Stadium): Michigan Panthers (0-1) vs. New Jersey Generals (0-1), 7 p.m. Friday; Pittsburgh Maulers (0-1) vs. Philadelphia Stars (0-1), 11 a.m. Saturday; New Orleans Breakers (1-0) vs. Tampa Bay Bandits (1-0), 2 p.m. Sunday.
It’s hard to say who has the strongest team in the USFL after Week One, but Birmingham’s fourth-quarter comeback by quarterback J’Mar Smith was the highlight. That’ll help attendance, too. The offense for the Houston Gamblers, coached by Kevin Sumlin, averaged a pathetic 4.1 yards per attempted pass. If only Sumlin could be reunited with form Texas A&M passing Johnny Manziel.
Manziel, college version, always knew how to make chicken salad out of … questionable ingredients.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.