Flag football pursuing varsity status in Illinois

This particular Saturday afternoon in September had all the makings of a high school gridiron classic.

The clouds eased across a sun-soaked blue sky, with a light breeze wafting the distinct smell of a freshly cut football field. As the players and coaches did their pregame walk-throughs, bees lingered a little too close, holding on to their final days before the remaining warmth of summer departs, taking them with it. Kids ran through the open field next to the bleachers while the adults grabbed their seats.

Noticeably missing from the Westinghouse football field was the sound of helmets and shoulder pads colliding and the notion that football is a sport reserved for men.

On the field, soft helmets covered the heads of the Westinghouse and Young girls’ flag football teams, and yellow flags hung from their belts to their knees.

“This isn’t just for fun,” Westinghouse junior quarterback LaMonica Bryant said. “It’s a serious sport.”

Chicago Public Schools launched the first girls’ flag football league in Illinois in 2021 with 22 teams participating in its inaugural season. This year participation has extended to the suburbs and more than doubled with 50 CPS teams, eight teams in the Rockford league and six in the Western Suburban Conference. As a whole, there are over 1,200 girls participating in high school flag football this year.

The goal for all of them is to become an IHSA varsity sport with arguably the biggest hurdle being participation. To take a sport from emerging to varsity-level, leagues need to have 10% of IHSA member high schools participating, which equates to about 80 schools. The IHSA Board also considers other factors like officiating, facilities and support from participating schools’ athletic directors.

For a sport like girls’ flag football, there’s an expectation that officials could be pulled from the 11-player game. But in Illinois, there’s already a need for more football officials which could prove to be a hindrance for this emerging sport down the road.

Currently, girls’ flag football is a sanctioned varsity sport in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia and Nevada. In New York, California and Arizona, similar to Illinois, it is still considered an emerging sport because the state has not yet sanctioned the sport.

Nike provided $100,000 to support the CPS league and the Bears, through Bears Care, provided another $140,000 for necessary equipment like soft helmets, cleats and belts. It costs about $2,500 per school to start a girls’ flag football team.

CPS senior manager of elementary sports Juliana Zavala has been working with the Bears and NFL Flag since 2020 to help get the sport off the ground in Illinois. They were intentional about the league starting first in Chicago with the goal of building the sport on accessibility and inclusivity.

Zavala expects to hit the 10% required mark for varsity consideration by 2023 and hopes that girls’ flag football will be an IHSA varsity sport by the fall of 2024. By comparison, the IHSA was licensing officials in lacrosse in 2005 before it officially became a varsity sports. In 2009 the IHSA had different athletic groups make a case for the sport to become a varsity sport in Illinois. That same year the IHSA Board determined it would establish lacrosse as a varsity sport when the state had 65 boys’ teams and 40 girls’ teams.

That didn’t happen until 2017-18. So while girls’ flag football has participation on its side, there are other factors that contribute to it becoming a varsity sport.

Beyond their financial contribution, the Bears’ role in the success of girls’ flag football in Illinois includes hosting a coaches clinic and jamboree which took place in August. Halas Hall will also host the state championship on October 29. Playoffs for the CPS league began this week. On Nov. 19, Halas Hall will host a college combine for all interested players that will feature NAIA schools offering scholarships and junior colleges interested in establishing girls’ flag football as a sport.

Westinghouse and Young, both completing their inaugural season, had matching records (5-1) coming into their final regular-season game last Saturday. On each sideline, teammates could be heard whispering how good the opponent was.

In the opening minutes of the game, Young quarterback Sonali Angus put the Dolphins up early with a 10-yard touchdown pass. On the next drive, Bryant led her team downfield for their own.

Bryant was a force on the field all game, finishing with two rushing touchdowns and connecting with receiver Nina Israel for two passing touchdowns en route to a 33-28 win.

The three-sport athlete who is part of the basketball and track-and-field teams has a list of colleges she is interested in on the notes app on her phone. She said each school listed is based on her academics and her times in track and field. When considering where she’ll attend college, Bryant is focused on which school will best serve her.

Bryant said she isn’t considering flag football as a means of attaining an athletic scholarship. She’s just focused on the joy it brings her.

But the point is that flag football is available as an opportunity for girls in Illinois. It’s up to them whether or not they want to participate and exactly how far they want to take it.

“Football runs in my family,” Bryant said. “It’s just another sport that brings peace to me.”