Canceling the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League championship game for the second time in three years brought a bitter end to the 2003 campaign.

The league now faces big questions about its future.

“I think it could fold,” said Russ Casimire, the outgoing coach of the Atsugi White Dolphins.

“It’s [folding] very possible,” added Kyle Rhodus, athletic director at Yokosuka Naval Base, which funds the four-time league champion Yokosuka Seahawks. “It’s going to take a lot of work to keep it going.”

Some wonder whether that commitment will surface.

“There are so many maybes,” said Seahawks head coach Isaac Lee, whose team was declared league champion two weeks ago after it was determined duty commitments would not allow Yokosuka to host the Kadena Dragons in the Oct. 26 championship game.

Among the immediate problems:

• Joseph Howell is stepping down after one season, leaving the league in search of yet another commissioner.

• The White Dolphins, one of the league’s charter members, need a new coach, with Casimire transferring to the United States in December and his longtime assistant, Deforest Pittman, right on his heels.

• The coaches of both 2003 expansion teams — Futenma’s John Quintana and Courtney-Hansen’s Tony Bowman — said they would step down at season’s end.

• Thirty-two games, including the 2001 and ’03 championship contests, have been called off, forfeited or postponed because of duty commitments and transportation problems.

• Disparity among league programs. Some are fully base-funded, while others are self-sufficient.

The league’s players are servicemembers first and football players second, Howell said, so little can be done to stem the tide of cancellations.

“That’s the nature of the beast that we live with in the military,” said Howell, an Air Force master sergeant who played for and coached the Yokota Raiders.

“When they say the boat’s moving, you have to go,” said Casimire, who had to forfeit, cancel or reschedule three games this season because of duty or lack of available transportation.

It’s problematic for most teams, who routinely deal with cancellations, postponements and forfeits, and it raises serious questions about the league’s viability.

Today’s world situation “definitely has an effect on what we’re doing,” Howell said.

“Time will only tell, if things lighten up and we can get back to a more structured, predictable schedule of military duty. The main thing is: Don’t let it die. Let’s work with what we’ve got and hope, someday, things can be worked out, so we can have more time to dedicate to football.”

Right now, only Yokosuka and Yokota get funding for everything except transportation. The Misawa Marauders had equipment purchased for them by the base services division before the start of the 2003 campaign.

On the flip side, Atsugi and Okinawa’s three teams only have their fields maintained, and each team must buy its own equipment. Okinawa’s Marine Corps Community Services pays for officials, but the White Dolphins foot that bill on the mainland.

“I don’t see financial support getting any better. There are a lot of budget cuts coming down,” said Rhodus, whose $3 million athletics program is one of the largest in the military.

Of that figure, Rhodus said, roughly half goes to keeping sailors physically fit, 20 percent is spent on aquatics and the rest is put aside for competitive programs, mostly intramural and youth sports.

Only 5 percent, Rhodus said, makes its way to the varsity level.

The Yokosuka football team’s biggest expense — equipment — isn’t a big worry, since it’s already purchased and only needs reconditioning each year, Rhodus said. But there are pressures from the command to hold down the cost of varsity programs.

“I’ve done what I can to keep it going,” he said.

Keeping the league alive, for the most part, is up to the players, coaches and teams, Rhodus said.

“The league can survive as long as they continue to do the things they need to do to support themselves,” Rhodus said.

Teams have been fortunate, Rhodus said, to receive transportation help in the form of Naval Air Logistical Operations flights. “Without those and other forms of support, the league would not exist,” he said.

One way around that problem, he added, is to split the league into northern and southern divisions, with Misawa, Atsugi, Yokota and Yokosuka playing each other twice up north and Kadena, Courtney-Hansen and Futenma doing the same on Okinawa. The winners would then meet in the championship game.

“That would make things much easier,” Rhodus said.

Howell was unsure whether the search for a new commissioner had begun, and he didn’t know if a timetable has been set to find a replacement.

It’s crucial that the players, coaches and teams put the league’s overall health above individual interests, Howell added.

Howell cited personal reasons for resigning. A batch of postponements after Aug. 2 created tension between league coaches and Howell.

“At times, we had folks forgetting the reasons why we’re here,” Howell conceded. “That comes with the territory, I guess. But that’s not the main reason why I left.”

Howell pointed to his duty commitments, involvement in the Yokota community and his role as the Yokota High School junior varsity football coach, which left him too little time to devote to the league.

Even with a new commissioner, in the face of the duty commitments and dwindling financial resources, can the league survive?

“We’re the last dinosaur. It would be unfortunate if the league doesn’t make it,” Howell said. “There are definitely some challenges. Maybe I’m the consummate optimist, but I still believe we can do varsity sports and accomplish the mission.”

Varsity sports taking cuts across the board

Interservice football teams aren’t alone in worrying about their financial future and viability. It’s a question facing military leagues and tournaments across the board, according to sports officials.

Fitness and participatory athletic programs get the bulk of services and Morale, Welfare and Recreation department funding, with between 50 percent and 75 percent going to weights and treadmills, 20 percent or more to intramural or youth programs, and a trickle to interservice teams.

“The focus is on fitness, readiness and the mission,” said Kadena Air Base athletic director Julie Fetters, who has worked for Army MWR and Air Force services for 19 years and watched the pool of dollars dedicated to varsity programs evaporate, especially over the past decade.

In 1992-93, the Air Force and Navy cut back on their command sports tournaments and varsity programs, saying they wanted to steer that money toward fitness, intramural and youth programs.

Marine Corps Community Services still holds a command tournament program for men’s softball, basketball and soccer, and also runs tackle football leagues at camps Pendleton and Lejeune in the United States. Privately, MCCS officials on Okinawa are discussing starting a football league next fall.

The Army disbanded its varsity program in 1972, though it still conducts tryout camps to select teams for All-Armed Forces competition. Like the Navy and Air Force, it chooses tryout camp entrants by resume.

The cutbacks have affected the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League. Some teams are fully funded, but all must pay for transportation costs.

“These guys should be offered those [varsity sports] opportunities. It’s just a question of how to offer it,” Fetters said. “Troops make big sacrifices, they pay big bucks to go represent their bases. It’s just not as easy to do as it was years ago.”

Justifying support for interservice sports, when the emphasis is now on servicemembers being fit to fight and caring for their families, “isn’t as easy [as] it was long ago,” Yokosuka Naval Base athletic director Kyle Rhodus said in an e-mail.

“It’s amazing the league [USFL-AFL] has stayed intact for as long as it has. Varsity sports is no longer considered a ‘core’ program ... and this is where the program support has dwindled.”

— Dave Ornauer

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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