Flag football is giving girls in Chicago public schools a new way to get into the game

By Alyssa Haduck
Medill reports

Diamond Gallardo had only been involved in football for a few months when she found herself in a suite at Soldier Field, getting a bird’s-eye view of a Bears game. The young quarterback, along with the rest of the Back of the Yards girls’ flag football team, had earned the honor by winning the Chicago Public Schools’ inaugural girls’ flag football league championship.

Gallardo cites the exclusive experience as her fondest memory of the 2021 CPS girls’ flag soccer season. This feeling is shared by Gustavo Silva, manager of youth football and community programs for the Bears, who has been instrumental in making the league a success.

“Getting to the game with their eyes for the first time and then knowing that they belong there, not only as fans but also as fellow footballers, that’s just great to see,” said Silva.

Back of the Yards was one of 21 teams that competed in the inaugural year of the CPS Girls’ Flag Football League. As preparations begin for the return to play this fall, the competition will now be twice as tough with 50 teams set to compete in the 2022 season. This rapid increase in participation is a key component of the Illinois High School Association’s recognition, a move that would legitimize not only the sport but girls’ participation in the game of soccer.

For the past 50 years, Title IX has encouraged girls’ participation in school sports, but in that time football has remained a male-dominated activity. Of the millions of children who participate in tackle football, only about 2,500 are girls, according to 2018 NFL data.

Despite this lack of tackle football, girls’ participation in flag football is increasing. Seven states currently offer girls’ flag football as a college sport, and the activity is becoming more common at club level, including in Illinois.

In 2021, the Bears partnered with CPS to introduce girls’ flag football to Chicago-area students. What began as a pilot program with eight teams soon grew faster than either Silva or his CPS colleague Juliana Zavala ever imagined.

“Rarely do things exceed your expectations,” Silva said, “but I think in this case we can say with certainty that they did.”

The CPS Flag Girls Football League aims to diversify the entire game of football in a way that makes girls feel welcome and safe, which resonated with Gallardo. Although the elder eagerly contributed to the Back of the Yards basketball and softball teams, she never considered soccer as an option until the introduction of the girls’ league.

“I was pretty excited that we could even play a sport like this in CPS because women could get on the football team, but it’s very rare so here’s one thing that all women are comfortable with and actually not scared of to participate.” Gallardo said.

That sentiment seems to have been felt by many of Gallardo’s peers, as the Back of the Yards team quickly assembled a group of nearly 20 girls at the start of the 2021 season. Coach Alicia Maxwell, who also oversees the girls’ basketball team, said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout.

BOTY Championship Game
Diamond Gallardo No. 7 (far left) played quarterback for back of the yards during the 2021 Chicago Public Schools Girls’ Flag Football League season. She was one of about 400 girls across CPS who took part in the new program. (Image credit: Chicago Bears)

Many of their flag football athletes were involved in other sports, but few had any knowledge of the game. And while Maxwell managed the Bobcats by drawing on her own experience playing intramural flag football in college, she appreciated the inexperience across the league as she gave each team a fair shot.

“Our kids don’t always get involved in sports at a young age,” Maxwell said of the Back of the Yards students. “The cool thing about flag football is that everyone started at the same level. There’s not a single school where they’re like pros because they’ve done it. It made the competition much better.”

With justice at the heart of the NFL’s community efforts, Silva said it’s no coincidence that the CPS Flag Girls’ Football League also serves the additional purpose of expanding athletic opportunity across socioeconomic boundaries.

“It was intentional that we could start with it in the city,” he said. “We always want to keep an eye on where the need is greater so we can really address those areas, because that’s the definition of justice, right? It’s not to say, “Hey, we offered everyone the same thing.” That’s equality. But equity really meets the needs in this particular situation and that’s what we’re really focusing on.”

Matt Troha, IHSA associate general manager, said this could be key to the success of girls’ flag football in the state.

“I think it’s going to spread, spread quickly,” Troha said of the activity. “I personally think it’s going to be an IHSA sport for years to come.”

About 10% of Illinois’ approximately 800 high schools must participate in a sport to be eligible as an IHSA sport. That equates to about 70 schools across the country. Girls’ flag football is the newest sport on the IHSA’s radar, while lacrosse was the most recent sport to be awarded university status.

Troha explained that many emerging sports, such as lacrosse, originated in suburban schools and often struggle to gain traction in urban settings due to a lack of resources. But as Chicago leads the charge for Illinois girls’ flag soccer, with support from the Bears, it has pre-emptively removed what may be the biggest obstacle to expansion.

BOTY championship win
The Back of the Yards flag soccer team celebrate their first place finish at the 2021 Chicago Public Schools flag soccer championship. Coach Alicia Maxwell (far right) credits hours of practice and exceptional team camaraderie as key to her team’s success. (Image credit: Chicago Bears)

With more than two dozen new teams joining the CPS league for the 2022 season, Back of the Yards’ Maxwell has already begun preparing her roster to defend the title. And while she will lose several key players to the deal this year, including Gallardo, she ultimately hopes to replicate the girls’ experience rather than their win.

“We’ve had teachers who are other coaches who come to games and say, ‘I’ve never seen our girls have so much fun playing sports,'” Maxwell said, “so I think it’s a great opportunity .”

Alyssa Haduck is a sports media graduate at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Alyssa_Haduck.

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