Sights and sounds of friendship, the joy of playing football and families uniting to encourage and celebrate their children were eliminated from parks across much of the United States this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In locales where youth sports were permitted for play, adhering to detailed protocols approved by government and public health officials – like those crafted by USA Football and other national governing bodies – was non-negotiable.
For the mental, emotional and physical health of their children, youth football leagues responsibly braved the pandemic’s uncharted waters in collaboration with local government and health experts.
“Prior to the state granting clearance to play, we utilized USA Football’s guidelines to form the foundation of our own protocols and procedures,” said Steve Coburn, Chairman of the New Hampshire-based Northeast Junior High Football League. “There was a specific section on parent expectations that we found to be very helpful.”
Mike Brewer, who leads the Milwaukee-area Wisconsin All-American Youth Football League, leveraged the knowledge of his state’s high school athletic association.
“The first question we asked ourselves was, ‘What do we need to do as a league to play this year?’ And from the very beginning we knew we had to mirror what the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) was doing,” Brewer said. “Luckily for us, we have some high school coaches that serve on our board. That led us to meeting earlier and staying ahead of the curve.”
Pandemic-caused financial hardships, including the cost of employing effective safety protocols, have burdened virtually every youth sports program nationwide. In addition to added expenses, player participation also decreased in some areas for fear of COVID-19.
“Despite the challenges we ran into from the start of this year, we were able to retain 85 percent of our players from last season,” said New Jersey Suburban Youth Football League Commissioner Russ Yeager. “And that speaks volumes of the support we’ve had from parents relative to our plan to safely play this season.”
“One of the biggest challenges we ran into was fundraising,” Coburn said. “The guidelines we put forth dictated increased resources, so we targeted new sponsors and then also did what we call tagging, where you stand outside a local business and have permission to request donations from customers. It just came down to doing what we needed to do to responsibly play.”
Many youth leagues forced to suspend play this season will reboot in 2021. Programs that did deliver a responsible and safe path to football this fall offer advice for returning to the field.
“Having relationships at the macro level with your state high school athletic association and coaches’ association are paramount,” said Brewer. “If you haven’t built strong relationships with the school districts on up to the state high school athletic association, you need to do so, even post-pandemic.”
“Communication is everything. I’m extremely proud of the transparent communication we’ve had with league parents,” added Yeager. “Without parental cooperation, none of this works.
“Clearly communicating our protocols and what we were asking of everyone for this season, though it could be a lot at times, was well received because everyone knew that it’d result in kids having the chance to play a game they all love and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”
At USA Football, we've got your back as you begin to go back to the field. Our recommendations for a responsible return are here – guidelines, infographics, videos, checklists and more.