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Home Sports High School Sports Jeff Jacobs: Are independent football organizers proving us wrong?

Jeff Jacobs: Are independent football organizers proving us wrong?

Before we explore potential unintended consequences from independent football leagues, two important questions have emerged in high school-aged athletics in Connecticut.

Are we open to the argument that we may have unfairly singled out the on-field, COVID-19 dangers of high school football?

We should be.

Conversely: Are those who have organized and coached, school districts that have loaned equipment and facilities, and parents who have paid to put upward of a thousand kids on the field prepared to accept the culpability/liability of a COVID outbreak?

They better be.

Neither of these two conflicting questions had Mark Siems breaking into uproarious laughter. This one did: Why not make his Connecticut High School Independent Football League schedule public?

“I don’t mean to laugh, but everybody’s asking,” said Siems, who along with Dan Lacasky put together the 17-club league. “It’s mainly because only three teams are backed up by their towns and school districts. Two in Meriden and New Britain. Everybody else has to fly under the radar.

“We have clubs practicing at (Quassy) amusement park, at a regional airport, on a farm, in somebody’s back yard, because their towns — some clubs are made up of multiple districts — aren’t being supported whatsoever. We’re worried that their local towns would shut them down or put pressure on the parents not to let them play. It has happened a lot.”

Remember when more than a thousand high school players descended on the state capitol in early September to protest for the CIAC and state DPH to change course and allow football? Guess what? They were serious.

The long, winding and contentious road that ended with no CIAC-sanctioned 11-vs.-11 football this fall and a tentative plan to squeeze it into a spring season is a road that hasn’t nearly ended.

If we have learned anything at the crazy intersection of athletics and democracy, it’s this: If people want something bad enough, they are going to find a way to make it happen. Even if it means forming a semi-secret society under everybody’s noses.

The CHSIFL, which opened last weekend, happened. The nine-team Fairfield County Football League senior division, which started two weekends ago, happened.

The number of participating players is fairly shocking. Siems counted more than 500 players. If we use the same ratio for the nine-team FCFL, that would be about 300 more. This is far more than a handful of affluent towns in Fairfield County. This is nearly 10 percent of the total participation of the entire state in pre-COVID 2019.

“Why is it shocking?” Siems asked.

Because no other state without high school football has pulled off anything of this magnitude so quickly, so systematically.

“I have more kids coming, too,” Siems said. “I’m getting messages all the time. Some of these clubs are putting A and B teams together. They may only be able to get four, five games in, but it’s better than nothing.

“We actually were estimating 30-35 teams with all the signups initially. Those organizers have gone away along with the players because of the pressure their schools, athletic directors and coaches have put on them with a lot of misinformation.”

A potential club, Siems said, was scared away because it believed it would cost $1,000 a player. It’s probably half that, he said, and with club fundraisers the number is shrinking closer to $300. Who among us parents haven’t paid much more for AAU teams in other sports?

Yet the price of participation isn’t the reason for this piece. It’s the price of COVID-19.

The governor’s COVID committees and the DPH gave independent youth sports a wide berth in the summer and those who wanted to operate outside the high school parameters found their loophole. In making sports a “local” issue, Gov. Ned Lamont clearly wanted to stay as far away as possible from the great political football. What he got were two independent leagues.

My initial stance was the CIAC shouldn’t play fall football, probably not soccer and maybe not field hockey and volleyball. It was about locker rooms, weight rooms and travel as much as line play and tackling. With much more advanced protocol, major college football still has postponed or cancelled 35 games. The dangers aren’t imagined. And even if young people aren’t dying, there is ever-growing evidence of heart damage from COVID for athletes.

As the CIAC dragged on — all other fall sports eventually were allowed — my stance on football evolved into, OK, let’s examine football-playing states and make the most-informed scientific decision at the latest possible date to see if a season would be better fit in before Thanksgiving than after March 1. It never got that far.

The DPH’s football recommendation centered on actual play, yet the truth is none of us still can be definitive about transmission in football vs. soccer, field hockey, wrestling. With all the football safety precautions taken, I’m now open to the argument that basketball could prove more dangerous.

While transmissions are up, scientists now are telling us small social groups with people taking off their masks is the major culprit. I’d argue door-to-door trick or treating and Halloween parties are worse. Just don’t dress up as a football player or the DPH may hunt you down.

One of the traditional beauties of sport is most debates are based on the facts. They aren’t politically motivated where every argument is already answered by an agenda. I so badly want to avoid politics here, especially since they have spilled into every area of our lives in 2020.

“We had games since July, played from Connecticut to Maine,” said Siems, who runs the Silver City Wolves while Lacasky owns and runs the CT Fire of the semi-pro East Coast Football League. “We just finished our league championship. Spectators, players, coaches, staff, not one instance of infection. Documented. Not one.

“We’re required to do contract tracing at every game. If there is an issue, we have the paperwork on everyone who walked in the door. Our protocol is proven.”

Siems said they sent the protocol to the CIAC and DPH. He took it a step further with high schools. Some of it, he said, was read word for word at the Sept. 9 news conference where fall football was canceled.

There are temperature checks at the gate. They require face shields or neck gators, mouth guards that cover the lips, long-sleeved shirts, gloves. If helmets are off, masks are required, teams are spread out 5-yard line to 5-yard line. Coaches and staff wear masks. No shared water bottles. No locker rooms. Limited spectators.

“The DPH still turned it down, saying there’s no science to prove anything,” Siems said. “It’s like we’re the redhaired stepchild of the sports world.”

No orange-haired stepchild jokes. No politics. Look, I’m not an epidemiologist or the governor. I tend to trust those with the most knowledge. If I was a school superintendent my instincts certainly would have been to go along with 7-on-7 this fall and not buck the DPH.

That doesn’t mean people who put together these independent leagues are wrong in their opinion that they can do it safely. It means they must be right. Their rebellion is over football. It’s not about overthrowing a ruthless dictator. They have thrown a Magnificent Middle Finger at the DPH. They’re on the hook now not to make a pandemic situation worse.

With 30 clusters of COVID linked to organized hockey activities, accounting for 108 cases, Massachusetts closed its rinks for two weeks. New Hampshire had a similar pause. Connecticut is considering it. Interstate ice hockey tournaments had COVID problems in our state in the summer and got far too much of a pass. Crammed into cars, gear-changing logistics, there obviously are problems.

We also had two dozen of our state’s top high school wrestlers travel and compete without masks in South Carolina last weekend. Much was made Tuesday of Connecticut’s jump to 4.1 percent. South Carolina’s positivity rate is 8 percent. I’ve argued cross country is safe. Yet some of our state’s top runners compete out of state each weekend and, hey, there’s a photo of medalists with their arms around each other from a New Jersey meet. No social distancing.

And the list of schools calling off non-football CIAC sporting events is growing because of COVID tracing.

My point is everything could be one week from shutting down. Or these football leagues could prove as safe as other fall sports and prove a lot of people — including me — wrong.

If all goes well, Siems said each CHSIFL team will play eight games. Teams have sought sponsors.

“Dan and I are strictly volunteer,” Siems said. “We’ve actually spent thousands out of our own pocket to get this set up. Neither one of us have kids playing football.

“Once the clubs know they’ve gotten their money’s worth and don’t have to worry about being shut down, we’ll release more information. I’d say the last two, three games. I know the clubs want to show how they did it right.”

Which leads us to unintended consequences. Something on a number of football people’s minds. Could this end up as the first step in AAU-style high school football?

Yes, Siems said, he’s thinking about it. And with so much infrastructure in place to reduce costs, many hurdles already are cleared. Would it be in the spring? How would a league promoting talent for colleges, affect prep schools and public schools?

“These pop-up leagues could have some ramifications in our state in the future,” said Ledyard AD Jim Buonocore, who’s also on the CIAC football committee.

“There’s definitely room for Connecticut to grow,” Siems said.

Yes, this could go a lot of ways. A lot of ways.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

Please go to GametimeCT.com High School Sports to read full article.

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Please go to GametimeCT.com High School Sports to read full article.