2015-10-14 / Front Page

Fight over field access turns ugly

As youth football leagues jockey, enter the ‘race card’
By Jim McConnell

Members of the Chesterfield Steelers 10-and-under football team listen to instructions from their coaches at halftime of last Saturday’s game against the Hopewell Dolphins at Chalkley Elementary School. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Members of the Chesterfield Steelers 10-and-under football team listen to instructions from their coaches at halftime of last Saturday’s game against the Hopewell Dolphins at Chalkley Elementary School. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer The letter offers a hint of the difficulty county officials face in dealing with the “new world order” that is local youth football.

Alex Bryant, head of the Chesterfield Falcons youth football organization, wrote to Deputy County Administrator Sarah Snead in early July, informing her that the Falcons intended to fight the county’s attempt to take away their practice field at Stratton Park and reassign them to Reams Elementary.

A frustrated Bryant noted that the Falcons practiced at Stratton Park last year, but Chesterfield Parks and Recreation planned to make the field available to the Richmond Kickers soccer organization for the fall 2015 season.

“We have tried everything to resolve this matter to no avail and are left with no other options,” he wrote. “The conditions at Reams are far below the quality of Stratton Park. I’m trying not to make this a racial issue, but what else could it be?”

Asked about the letter during a recent interview, Bryant didn’t back away from his suggestion that the parks and recreation department took a well-maintained field away from a group of primarily black football players and gave it to a group of mostly white soccer players.

“I’m not a person who normally brings up the race card – I’m out here coaching football so kids can be safe and have fun – but sometimes you have to say things people don’t want to hear,” he said.

“I opened my mouth. I’m going to do what’s right for kids, and I’m willing to live with that.”

Noting Bryant’s continued objection to practicing at Reams, parks and recreation staff eventually found his teams a better facility at Carver College and Career Academy in Chester.

But county officials strongly deny that race played any part in the decision to move the Falcons out of Stratton Park. They insist it was the fairest way to resolve a dispute over field assignments that arose when the Falcons and Chesterfield Steelers broke away from the Chesterfield Metro Youth Football League earlier this year.

That ugly divorce was just the latest change in Chesterfield’s increasingly decentralized youth football structure.

For most of the past 50 years, if you had a child who wanted to play football in the county, you signed him up to play in the Chesterfield Quarterback League. Now there are three nonprofit youth football organizations operating in the county – CQL, Chesterfield Metro and the Virginia Youth Football League – as well as several travel teams that are based in Chesterfield but play games in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and North Carolina.

In a county where most of the local budget is allocated to schools and public safety, and parks and recreation typically gets little more than table scraps, finding enough field space to satisfy all of the various constituent groups can be a maddening task.

“We’re in a big transition phase, and we’re trying to adapt to that,” acknowledged Bill Carlson, who has worked for the county’s parks and recreation department for 31 years. “People are more willing now to go start their own groups. Our old business model – the way football worked for 35-40 years – is changing. We’re learning along with everyone else.”

Carlson’s boss, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Golden, recalled that the same thing happened to youth baseball in Chesterfield about 30 years ago.

For many years, Huguenot Little League and Chesterfield Baseball Clubs were the dominant youth baseball organizations in the county. Chesterfield Little League was founded in 1988, and Central Chesterfield Little League came into existence seven years later, just as travel baseball began to grow in popularity.

All of a sudden, there were four groups vying for access to county baseball diamonds – two of which were trying to protect turf that they weren’t accustomed to sharing.

“The baseball split-up was 100 times worse than anything we’ve seen in football,” Carlson added.

Lou Lippa disagrees with that assessment. Lippa’s plan was to form a youth football league to give county parents and children the option of playing somewhere other than the Chesterfield Quarterback League, but when he first tried to gain county co-sponsorship of Chesterfield Metro in 1998, he encountered fierce resistance from CQL.

During a meeting of the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, representatives from each of CQL’s member associations protested the formation of a new youth football league in Chesterfield.

Swayed by claims that Lippa intended to bus in teams from Richmond to play against Chesterfield kids, the commission initially voted against granting his league co-sponsorship from the county.

When Golden ignored that recommendation and approved Chesterfield Metro’s co-sponsorship request, CQL representatives suggested that there weren’t enough fields in the county to accommodate a new youth football league.

Those claims ignored the reality that, as by far the largest youth football organization in Chesterfield, CQL retained rights to the vast majority of the county’s taxpayer-funded rectangular athletic fields during the fall season.

Parks and recreation’s facility assignment system long has been based on the number of county residents in a given league. With more than 3,000 players, CQL was given a specific number of practice fields, then league officials allocated those fields to its member associations.

Any association who chose to leave CQL and join a different league forfeited its practice field assignment; the field remained with the league, and the association had to be approved for a new co-sponsorship before it was given access to another field.

Based on that precedent, Lippa thought Chesterfield Metro would retain rights to practice fields at Chalkley Elementary and Stratton Park when the Steelers and Falcons decided to break away from his league last spring.

Lippa was incensed to learn that wasn’t the case – the two teams had been granted both co-sponsorship and practice fields for the fall 2015 season – and blasted the county during the August meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission.

“My problem is that the county didn’t even follow its own policy,” Lippa said. “I just want things to be fair and equal, but parks and rec doesn’t know how to handle the situation.”

Golden pointed out that his department’s policy manual is merely a guideline for staff and co-sponsored organizations and insisted it was “the right thing” to provide field access for the four Chesterfield-based teams – the Steelers, Falcons, Ettrick Trojans and Capital City Blackhawks – that are currently competing in the Virginia Youth Football League.

“We have our usual timetable for assigning fields, but if something changes, we need to have the flexibility to adjust,” he said.

Everyone associated with youth football in Chesterfield expects the pace of change to accelerate in the coming years.

Tim Gallagher, commissioner of the Chesterfield Quarterback League, said last month that “as of now, we don’t feel threatened on field space by other leagues.”

But Bryant contends that CQL is losing players because of its “striper” rule, which prohibits kids over a certain weight from carrying the ball, and because an increasing number of parents don’t believe that weightrestricted football adequately prepares their sons for what they’re going to face when they get to high school.

Travel football is gaining popularity because it has no weight restriction and offers kids an opportunity to face teams from outside the county.

While Parks and Recreation has committed to making improvements, there is no money for building new rectangular athletic fields in its current five-year capital improvement plan.

That means, as youth football becomes more decentralized and demand for field space continues to increase, the department likely will have to devise a new system for assigning fields.

Asked recently if the county is approaching a point when it no longer has the resources to provide access to taxpayer-funded facilities for all athletic teams, Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick said he doesn’t think so.

“Part of having a livable community is having a place for kids and adults to play sports,” he added.

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