The Chicago Bears — in partnership with Chicago Public Schools — launched the first high school girls flag football league in Illinois in 2021.
In its first year the league was composed of 22 teams strictly within Chicago. The next year it expanded to more than 50 teams in the city, and conferences were formed from other Illinois towns such as Rockford and Oak Park.
And now it’s going global.
The Bears, along with the New York Jets, are launching the first intramural girls secondary school flag football league in the United Kingdom. The introduction of the league Wednesday came on International Women’s Day. Teams from 12 schools will compete over a six-week season in the borough of Ealing in West London, with no charge for schools or players to participate.
Chase Claypool, a Bears wide receiver and NFL Global Flag Ambassador, called it an opportunity to expand the sport internationally.
”The Bears reached out to me and asked me if I want to be a part of this. And it was an easy answer,” he told the Tribune. ”When you think about American football, you just think that’s a men’s sport. But it’s starting to transition into both men and women. So I think football is the perfect segue into doing that.”
Gustavo Silva, the Bears manager of youth football and community programs, said growth and interest in girls flag football has exploded locally and nationally, noting a 300% growth in Illinois leagues.
“The Jets reached out to us,” Silva told the Tribune, “and we came together, with both teams having the international NFL market rights to the UK, and said, ‘Let’s put this league together and create the same opportunity for girls in the UK to access the great sport of football the way that we did here in the States.’”
The number of girls participating in sports declines in the UK as they get older. In the U.S., Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives federal funding. There is no such law in the UK.
Silva said the Bears want to be leaders in that arena.
“It’s about inclusion, accessibility and equity,” he said. “We know the many benefits of participation in athletics. Girls should have access … an equitable way to tap into those benefits.
“We feel that football is the greatest team sport there is and that there’s so much to benefit both from a health standpoint, from a social standpoint, just overall well-being. We talk about life skills, responsibility and self worth. Sports help so much with that, and we feel like girls should have access to that and that’s why we’ve been so passionate about growing here in the States.
“And we found the same thing exists worldwide. The only issue is that people had not had the opportunity. So now that we have seen a model that works here, ‘if you build it, they will come.’”
Teams in the new UK league will be divided into two divisions, representing each NFL partner. They will play within their division, and the division winners will play a championship game.
Juliana Zavala, the senior manager of elementary sports for the Chicago Public League, has been a coach in the local girls flag football league since its inception.
According to Zavala, many of the girls in the program never had played a sport before but jumped at the opportunity because it brings them together with others and empowers them.
“The girls are excited,” she said. “One of the things that they tell me all the time is we have the opportunity to be equal. They know that they can do whatever they want and be fearless.
“Usually you have powderpuff during halftime of the homecoming game. Forget that. That’s not happening anymore. And it just changes the mindset. So according to the girls, ‘Come watch us play’ is their motto.”