Independent high school football league forms in CT despite complications, controversy
An independent high school-level tackle football league, attached to the Fairfield County Football League governing youth football, is attempting to begin play Saturday.
The league, which hopes to play between six to eight games, has worked on plans to run independently in the weeks since the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled 11-vs.-11 contact football for the 2020 high school fall season on Sept. 4.
The league would operate despite the recommendation of state Department of Public Health officials and other epidemiologists GameTimeCT has interviewed, all of whom have advised against full 11-vs.-11 tackle football due to ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The CIAC canceled its season weeks ago, but has allowed practices and 7-vs.-7 games to be played, with tentative plans to play a shortened season early next year.
Multiple sources in contact with league officials and players have confirmed the existence of at least eight independent teams: two from Fairfield and others in Westport, New Canaan, Darien, Danbury, Stamford and one that includes players from St. Joseph High School of Trumbull, but is not affiliated with the school.
Three games were tentatively scheduled for Saturday, according to several officials. Including players, coaches and officials, 100 people are allowed at games.
A Westport vs. “Fairfield Falcons” game is set to be played at Fairfield Ludlowe High School’s Taft Field at 1:30 p.m., FCIAC commissioner and former Ludlowe Athletic Director Dave Schulz confirmed. However, Fairfield Public Schools Superintendent Mike Cummings said Friday his school district “is not supporting the league.”
A “Fairfield Mustangs” team is scheduled to play at Darien High School at 9 a.m., according to Darien Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley.
A game between a team including players from St. Joseph vs. New Canaan was supposed to be played at St. Joseph High School, but was abruptly switched. A source said the team was denied use of St. Joseph’s field during a school board meeting Friday night. The 4:30 p.m. game Saturday will now be played at New Canaan’s Waveny Field, which is located off high school property.
Trumbull’s Emergency Medical Services confirmed it had been contracted to work a game Saturday at St. Joseph, but on Friday afternoon was told “our services were no longer needed.”
The league’s organization has been shrouded in secrecy since it began organizing about three weeks ago. Few of the independent league’s organizers contacted by GameTimeCT have responded to requests for comment. Social media accounts purporting to have information on the independent league’s plans have emerged on two occasions over the last several weeks, including one Twitter account that included a weekend schedule. The accounts were deleted within an hour of publication.
Dr. Mitch Ross, the head football coach at Fairfield Ludlowe High School and one of the independent league’s organizers, declined to answer questions when reached Thursday. He did acknowledge attempts to put together a league were ongoing.
“Teams are practicing throughout Fairfield County. Kids have worked hard to raise money in order to play and in order for their neighbors to play,” Dr. Ross said. “It’s a great experience, all these football players banding together for a common goal.”
Independent football competition would run counter to guidance by the Connecticut Department of Health, which has recommended against playing 11-vs.-11 tackle football at the high school level.
The sport has been deemed “high risk” during the COVID-19 pandemic by the National Federation of State High School Association’s Medicine Advisory Committee. The Connecticut DPH later updated its recommendations to include all forms of amateur tackle football.
At the request of the CIAC, Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin released legal advice on Sept. 28. It detailed the potential liability of coaches and schools if they proceed with participating in football counter to those recommendations.
In response, the CIAC announced plans to attempt a shortened football season in March and April, urging players and coaches to stay away from independent teams.
High school teams have been allowed to continue practice, and the CIAC has sanctioned football-related activities like 7-on-7, non-tackle passing games and lineman strength challenges.
Several of the state’s referee boards confirmed they’ve been asked to officiate independent league games in Fairfield County beginning this weekend.
Kevin Moreland, the president of the Connecticut State Board of Football Officials, said the boards have declined to participate, citing liability issues with and the absence of insurance covering COVID-19-related illnesses.
Moreland said lawyers, many of whom work as referees among the six state boards, have been examining the legal liability for game officials based off the Shipman & Goodwin advice. Their interpretation, Moreland said, was that boards should not officiate independent high school-level games unless those leagues could provide additional insurance coverage for COVID-19-related illness. “They couldn’t give us that indemnification,” Moreland said of the independent league.
“Without that indemnification, we would be putting our officials in a bad position,” he said. “It could be monetarily catastrophic for them. (The Shipman & Goodwin advice) hit home hard. Once everybody’s (lawyers) examined it and told us what the possibilities are, even though they might be remote, it’s a thin line to walk.”
Moreland said the Connecticut State Board of Officials planned to meet this week and release an official policy by Tuesday.
The Fairfield County Football Officials Association has been refereeing FCFL youth games since September. But FCFOA president Jerry Costello said his board’s counsel also advised against officiating the independent league’s games, citing the Shipman & Goodwin advice.
Costello said he would be seeking further legal advice on whether his officials should continue to do other FCFL youth football games.
It was not known who would be officiating the independent league games this weekend.
A handful of independent teams scrimmaged last week in Meriden and planned to play games over the next few weeks, including teams of players from both of Meriden’s high schools and an Amity team also consisting of players from Hamden and Law. Platt and Maloney are scheduled to play Saturday, according to the Record-Journal of Meriden.
New Britain’s and Derby’s boards of education voted last week to allow students to use school equipment in independent football, following Meriden’s lead.
With additional reporting from Michael Fornabaio, Pete Paguaga, Dave Stewart, Scott Ericson and Susan Shultz