There’s no such thing as bad publicity, the saying goes. Major Arena Soccer League second-year defender Derek Huffman is putting that adage to the test.
Playing games on the road with the Cedar Rapids Rampage, Huffman has drawn the ire of opponents’ fans with his posing and smack talk.
More recently Huffman has found himself in a Twitter war with the St. Louis Ambush and the MASL itself, over the recent selection of the Ambush’s Robert Acosta as the league’s Defender of the Year.
The Ambush went 3-19 and allowed 7.00 goals per game, which ranked them 11th out of 16 teams, but Acosta led the league with 49 blocks and apparently voters (each team got one vote) went with the lazy shorthand blocks=defense. That wobbly logic aside, it is very likely that Acosta didn’t even lead the MASL in blocks. Statistical accuracy is a big problem in the MASL and the Ambush sent block corrections to the league on Acosta’s behalf, an action that is perfectly acceptable, but not common.
Huffman informally went through game video of 15 of his 20 games and counted 51 personal blocks, though he was only credited with 20 officially. In fact, there were eight Rampage home games where the entire team was credited with three blocks or less. Five of those games had zero blocks credited at all.
While some people celebrated Acosta’s win as a Cinderella story, Huffman wasn’t having any of it. “It ruffled a few feathers,” he says of his award criticism. “A lot of feedback I got though was positive. A lot of players hit me up and told me they agree with me. For the most part I think a lot of people agree with me. Of course there are going to be some people who disagree which is OK, too.” For the record Huffman’s vote would have gone to Adriano Dos Santos of the Baltimore Blast.
“Everything I say comes from a good place,” says Huffman. “It comes from how I feel. It comes from my heart. I’m not scared to say things that I feel they are what they are.”
Huffman was fined earlier in the season for insulting a fan on Twitter, and has been levied a hefty fine for the Acosta comments.
“I’m not out here trying to be a bad guy,” he said. “I’m not trying to piss people off. I’m out here to compete and I’m out here to give my all and give everything I have. If that’s what it looks like then that’s what it is. I’m not going to shy away from that. I’ll be the bad guy if that’s what you guys want. Sure.”
Last week, Huffman was blocked by the MASL on Twitter, which only served to antagonize him. As a response, he called out MASL Commissioner Joshua Schaub in a Tweet.
“You go on Roger Goodell’s Twitter, the NFL commissioner and it’s nothing but stuff about the NFL,” said Huffman. “He’s out here promoting. He’s out here growing, doing stuff for his league. Then you go on our commissioner’s Twitter and he’s posting stuff about baseball and the Brewers. You’re the leader of our league, you should be out there doing the most work promoting us, trying to help this league grow.”
This skirmish is just the latest test of life in the social media age. There was a time not so long ago where people could compartmentalize their lives. They could be themselves all day and only had to put on a public face if they were speaking to the press in the newspaper or on TV or radio.
Now, most of us live our daily lives through the filter of Facebook and Twitter, so any way we express ourselves creates a potential minefield of offense.
Huffman thinks the fines are unfair. “What did I say? What did I do? You guys can dig and find out some other things that went on in this league that went unpunished and you would think the way they’re fining me that these guys would get the death sentence.
“You’re not going to control my social media when guys are making (so little) per game.”
Comets fans, in particular, are not fond of Huffman. “I’m 6-0 against the Comets (Huffman didn’t play in the Rampage’s 10-3 loss at Kansas City on 2/26/17), and don’t see myself losing to the Comets. I wouldn’t like me either if I was them. Every time we go there, after the game there’s about 30 (fans) banging on the glass, saying the most ridiculous things to us. So yes, if you come over there asking for trouble, talking crap, you’re going to get stuff back. I’m going to say something back.”
“I’ll be the bad guy if that’s what you guys want. Sure.”
There were even accusations that Huffman cursed at kids, though sometimes, the child in the story is five and sometimes it’s a 10-year old.
“That never happened,” Huffman says, relieved to have the opportunity to clear up a story he finds ridiculous. “I’m 100% sure I said FU to somebody, but it wasn’t a kid. I would literally be the only athlete in the history of the world of sports to flip off a five-year old for trying to shake my hand. I’d be the only one ever because I’ve never seen that, never heard of it.”
“Derek Huffman doesn’t affect me, I can handle it,” said Milwaukee Wave midfielder and frequent opponent, Ian Bennett. “Every league needs a bad boy. He’s not a bad guy like everyone makes him out to be. You can’t please everyone.”
“I got to know Derek a lot better (this year) than ever before,” said Rampage coach Ante Cop, who has followed Huffman’s career from college to the MASL. “I saw the times he might have committed a harder foul than is ‘allowed’. I saw him chatter to people in the stands and to the opposition. I also saw him score a number of incredible goals and shutdown the opposition’s best player or players. I got to see that there are lots of sides to this kid. Derek has no gray area. He lets you know what’s on his mind and it’s ‘black or white’. As someone who prides himself on being the same way, it was very refreshing. This image of Derek being a ‘bad boy’ or a ‘misfit’ is very off base. He gives back what is thrown at him. He will protect himself and his teammates. He won’t back down from anyone.”
On the field, the 29-year old is driven to succeed. “I want to be the best. I want to compete. I want to beat everyone. I’m out here training. I just want to be the best.”
Huffman played target forward his first year, but made the dramatic shift to defense this season. “I played forward and defender in college (at Division I SIU Edwardsville) . I can play any position. Put me in goal, I’ll do the job. I train at this. This is something I do. Something I enjoy. It’s my craft. I put time into this.”
When Huffman speaks he doesn’t sound arrogant or abrasive. “I think my fans know, what other fans don’t know, that I’m a cool dude. You don’t know me. You’ve never talked to me in your life and you’re writing all this crap about me on the Internet. If you knew me you would like me for sure. I’m funny. I’m good looking.”
Good looking enough to have an Instagram modeling page that only has 33 photos, but has almost 5,000 followers.
In this day and age if you’re not viral, you’re invisible. A quick scan of the MASL’s last 99 Facebook posts reveals an average of 35 likes and three comments per post, even though the page has almost 77,000 fans.
Huffman is not on Facebook, but “shares” of his Tweets have generated hundreds of comments on Facebook. “Just because my Tweets are getting so much attention, anything I post, there’s comments for days. Y’all should take notes. This is social media training for you. Don’t get mad at me.
“If anything you should be thanking me because when I post stuff think of all the attention it brings. There’s other stuff that everyone posts and it gets no attention about the league.”
At times the MASL has been overly sensitive, while Huffman has been perilously close to the line, at times crossing it. While not actively trying to be a villain, Huffman presents the MASL with a marketing opportunity if the league is savvy enough to use it to their advantage. Huffman (and any player who possesses an innate showmanship) creates story lines. People pay money to boo the villain. They make signs. They talk to their friends about it. The trick is finding the balance.
“I would do it all over again the same exact way.”