Convinced that they can play tackle football safely during the COVID-19 pandemic with no CIAC-sanctioned football this fall — and suddenly with, it seemed, an unlikely sort-of ally — one independent league for high school players began this past weekend, and another plans to be near full strength this weekend.
One team isn’t sure where it’ll be playing this weekend, though. A team of Fairfield Ludlowe players played at their own school on Saturday, beating Westport in overtime, but the team was told it can no longer use Taft Field, coach Mitch Ross said.
“Unfortunately (Wednesday) we learned, despite the fact there were no issues, the Town of Fairfield took away all our fields,” Ross said. “I don’t know what changed their minds. Now we don’t have any fields to practice 11-v-11 or play 11-v-11.”
Ross said the reason he got was that the town was “just following (Department of Public Health) guidelines.” He wasn’t sure from whom that decision ultimately came.
Messages to Fairfield superintendent of schools Mike Cummings weren’t immediately returned Wednesday.
Ross didn’t know if the decision extended to other youth teams or just the high school independent team.
“We’re not asking them to condone a team. We’re asking for field use,” Ross said, adding he’s confident his team will find a place to play. “Obviously DPH guidelines haven’t changed in four months, maybe even nine months.”
Brunswick athletic director Ron Van Belle confirmed that a Greenwich team is playing, but it, like the other independent teams, is not directly affiliated with the school.
“We are not giving them any equipment (or) uniforms and we are not offering them our field or facilities,” Van Belle said. “There is a mix of players on the team, not only from Brunswick, but from various other schools in Connecticut, making up this team.”
Independent teams aren’t tied to one school or town unless they want to be. A team based in Southern New London County, playing in the CHSIFL, has players from as far away as Fairfield County, organizer Eric Whitman said.
Mark Siems, who runs a semi-pro football team and is one of the organizers of the CHSIFL, said the league includes 17 teams, and 14 will play this weekend in the league’s “Week 1.”
The schedule is under wraps, though, because they “still have those towns that aren’t supportive” and have teams afraid of being shut down.
“We’ve got teams practicing at an amusement park, practicing at an airport, one at a farm, because their towns won’t give them a field to practice on,” Siems said.
He said insurance is set for the league, and officials are contracted, the same ones used for the local semi-pro games, not under the state board. Games will follow the same CDC guidelines they use for semi-pro games, too.
“The No. 1 thing is to get (the players) to play,” Siems said.
Ross said opening day went well on Saturday in the FCFL, which has also declined to publicize its schedule.
Players went through the typical temperature-and-questionnaire screening, and he has heard of no one getting sick since.
“We had no fans. We had no issues at the field whatsoever,” Ross said. “The refs were great. The sportsmanship was great. We hosted JV and freshman games this weekend as well, and those went very well, three games.”
The Connecticut Football Officials Association issued a memorandum Tuesday night that they will not officiate games without additional insurance due to possibility of COVID-related lawsuits, forcing teams to look elsewhere.
The CIAC, the state’s governing body for high school sports, canceled its fall tackle football season in September while finally allowing for the possibility of a short season in March and April. CIAC-sanctioned practices and 7-on-7/lineman-challenge contests have continued for many programs.
The state Department of Public Health declined to give the CIAC a recommendation to play this fall and later updated its guidance to recommend not playing or practicing tackle football at all at any level.
Gov. Ned Lamont had pushed for a spring CIAC season last month. Asked Monday why he didn’t simply ban youth sports himself in light of independent football leagues, he said he’d rather leave the decision up to local governments but said sports themselves didn’t seem to be driving the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s five people in a car on their way to that hockey tournament. It’s six people in a room. That’s where the risk is,” Lamont said. “Does that mean we’re going to have to think about doing something with these tournaments, where people are coming from far afield? Perhaps. I’m talking to my fellow governors about that.
“Otherwise, we’re going to keep (decisions) local, but I would warn you: Look, if you have one of these football leagues, we’ve seen a lot of infections in and around sports. And if that happens on the team, then it gets into the school, then you can’t have school open for a while, so there are risks involved.”
The state’s metrics have deteriorated since the beginning of September. COVID-19 hospitalizations were down four to 213 on Wednesday, but that’s up from 51 from Sept. 13. With eight deaths reported in Wednesday’s update, 30 over the past seven days make this the worst week in three months.
The CIAC’s decision to cancel sparked planning for independent fall seasons.
Falcon Field in Meriden, Siems said, is “pretty well known” to be the CHSIFL’s primary neutral field.
The city was the first to allow its high schools’ players to use school equipment, and though the teams aren’t otherwise associated with the schools, Platt and Maloney played each other this past weekend.
“(Meriden seems) to be the only city that likes football, that’s going against city hall, so to speak,” said Whitman, the coach and organizer of the Southern New London County team.
“I’m just going to play who they tell me to play.”
SNLC is one of the CHSIFL teams that will wait another week, still assembling equipment.
An Amity team, including players from other towns, played in a scrimmage at Falcon Field on Oct. 10. Stonington has a team and is running a fundraising golf tournament on Sunday. New Britain, another team that got city permission to use school equipment, is also in the league, as is Ellington and a team including students from Haddam-Killingworth. The Hartford Courant reported that Berlin and Southington will also participate, and Facebook posts have indicated there’s a team based in Hartford.
Several other teams held online fundraisers over the past month to defray costs, but it was unclear which if any were in the league as several teams kept their participation quiet.
“I’m a little more, ‘I need to publicize my group,’” said Whitman, who posted often on Facebook about SNLC. “I’m not afraid to answer calls, ‘should we be doing this, the state says it’s not safe.’ That’s crap.”
He and teammates started a club team at the University of Maine, and he has been a club-football administrator, but “semi-retired” when his kids got to high school. He said he’s doing this to get his son a senior season.
“I don’t have faith that the CIAC is going to do that wedge season,” Whitman said.
SNLC is practicing indoors in part because, Whitman said, even for non-tackle, no-hitting practices (with helmets, using face shields to mitigate any possible spread), he’s running into roadblocks trying to get onto fields.
David Fierro and Sean Patrick Bowley contributed to this report.