KTW reached out to four football aficionados to pick their brains on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting pigskin’s plight in B.C. at the club, community and high school levels.
Among interviewees were TSN broadcaster Farhan Lalji, a longtime high school football coach and organizer, Kamloops Sports Hall of Famer and former CFLer Brad Yamaoka, who started his own standalone club squad, senior varsity South Kamloops Titans’ head coach JP Lancaster and Kamloops Community Football Society president William Neville.
On Aug. 24, viaSport, the B.C. government’s delivery agency for sport, entered Phase 3 of its Return to Sport Guidelines, which allow for modified games and matches at the club level, along with league play and competition within cohorts.
B.C. School Sports entered Phase 2 of its Return to School Sport Plan on Sept. 10. Limitations imposed by the Ministry of Education and its Restart Education Plan do not allow for football game play. Non-contact practices are permitted.
THE MORAL QUESTION
Many in the high school camp are upset the province is allowing club football to go ahead. They see hypocrisy and holes in the logic. That makes for good discussion, as does this question: Should kids and teenagers be engaging at all in team sports activities during the pandemic?
“Yes. We should [be playing],” said Lalji, who is on B.C. High School Football’s board of directors and sits on its return-to-play committee. “It matters. Unless you can show me how playing amateur sports has completely spiked our numbers. Then we can have a different conversation. I really think this all comes down to optics and liability. It doesn’t come down to health and safety. Cohorts, primarily, are not about safety. They’re about contact tracing.”
Lancaster is gutted for his Titans, including the Grade 12s who will miss out on opportunities to chase university scholarships if the season is cancelled.
He is among those who feel the province’s high-school stiff-arm doesn’t add up if club sports are free to operate.
“But it’s really tough to say, morally, if kids competing right now is the right thing,” said Lancaster, noting his Titans were poised for a win-now season. “[Provincial Health Officer Dr.] Bonnie Henry said the other day we’re in our second wave and the numbers are rising. I want to do what we can to keep the program going, but I don’t want it to be anything that jeopardizes health and safety.”
A few months ago, Yamaoka decided it was time to get his 15-year-old son, Kai, off the couch. Football training began and Kai’s friends soon joined boot camp, with Yamaoka adapting to provincial virus guidelines as they evolved.
The gridiron gang, composed of players in grades 8 through 11, has grown to about 25 players and will cap a two-game exhibition campaign this weekend with a tilt against a Vernon community football club.
Yamaoka is OK with the province’s approach at the high school level.
“Honestly, I don’t think any high school sports are going to happen at this point,” said Yamaoka, whose Kamloops club spanked Vernon 44-14 earlier this month in their first meeting. “U Sports cancelled all winter sports last week. We are going into more of a flu season and I’m kind of happy we’re going to be done this weekend. I think community football is planning on going to the end of November. When flu season hits and some of these kids start getting flu, the mess that’s going to create with testing and tracing, it will likely get ugly.
“Not necessarily that there’s going to be a ton of COVID cases, but if you catch the flu, you won’t know if it’s COVID, you won’t know it’s flu. You just won’t have a clue.”
Kamloops Community Football registration numbers are down, with about 65 participants in total on three teams — atom (ages 7, 8 and 9), peewee (10, 11) and junior bantam (12, 13).
“The important thing for us was just to be able to play,” Neville said, noting there were more than 100 registrants last season. “The numbers didn’t matter. We just wanted to figure out a way to get kids active and get them out on the field, being outside playing where you have space. It’s been really good for the kids.”
Neville said Kamloops Community Football has followed safety guidelines mandated by the B.C. Provincial Football Association, which had its return-to-play plan approved by viaSport.
“Everything has changed,” Neville said. “Absolutely everything.”
HIGH SCHOOL ANGST
Lalji said provincial politics is partly to blame for Grade 12 football players being robbed of university scholarships.
“Now you’ve got a provincial government who said they would re-visit it mid-fall, but now are in the midst of an election, so they’re not interested in this,” said Lalji, noting at-risk youth tied to sports only through high school programs have been negatively impacted.
“I’ve had conversations with university coaches already. They’re telling me, ‘We don’t have enough room for your guy. Normally, we bring in 25 to 30 guys on scholarship. We’re only bringing in 15 this year.’ I’ve had that with at least five different CIS [U Sports] football coaches. These other kids [university seniors] got an extra year, so they’re [Grade 12s] taking it on both ends.”
Last season, there was only one senior varsity high school football team in Kamloops, the Titans. The once-proud Westsyde Blue Wave program was aiming to restart this year, but momentum has been hindered by the pandemic.
“The big frustration for anyone on the high school side is the discrepancy between club and community and why they’re able to compete and we’re not,” Lancaster said. “There is the liability side, which I can understand, but just because you’re registered with a community club team under viaSport, that’s not a defence shield against COVID.”
Yamaoka coached the junior varsity Titans last year, a strong crop that includes his son. The team, which reached the provincial semifinal in 2019, was among favourites for gold in 2020.
“We probably had on that team four kids who could have made the U16 provincial team,” Yamaoka said. “But I get it. I do.
“And I keep telling people — the key words in high school sports are high school. It’s connected to the provincial education ministry. They have to do everything they can to squash the virus or any transmission of the virus.
“I go pick up my son from school. There is not a lot of social distancing happening. I think that’s the same for any school.”
The club team Yamaoka formed includes players from high schools across the city.
“There are positive that came out of it,” Yamaoka said. “We’ve had time to work on things with kids we may not have necessarily have had time with.
“We don’t have to worry about jamming systems down their throat.”
The Kamloops Community Football Society wanted to field a 14- and 15-year-old bantam team this year, but numbers were too short.
“If community football was able to get a bantam team together, then we would have put a bantam team together with the group of guys I had,” said Yamaoka, whose club team formed before community football was green-lighted by the province. “We could have totally played them.”
Did Yamaoka’s club hurt KCF’s chances of fielding a bantam team?
“That’s a tough one,” Neville said. “I think there is space for both high school and community, especially with the amount of schools that now do not have high school ball. We need to try to figure out how to work together on that. We’re not there yet. We’re working on it.”
Lalji’s 17-year stint as head coach of the senior varsity New Westminster Hyacks and 31-year tenure coaching in the B.C. High School Football ranks ended after the 2019-2020 campaign.
He questions the cohort system and whether team sports are outbreak lightning rods.
“I love these kids. I still talk to the players I had last year regularly,” said Lalji, who is this season coaching his 12-year-old son’s youth football team. “Many of them comment on my son’s games and you can just tell they’re the kids on the outside of the glass looking in, the kids who didn’t get their gifts at Christmas watching everybody else get their gifts.
“I’m not putting any of those things above the pandemic, but our Provincial Health Officer, who has been widely praised for her handling of the pandemic, has said there is a safe way to do this, so it should apply.”
The national media man has concerns about the macro impact of losing the high school sports season.
“It can’t have a positive effect on any school sport, right?” he said. “You run the risk of privatizing sport. When you’ve got a local community association, that’s fine. But you look at a sport like basketball, which is on the verge of being taken over by the club system to begin with. That would be devastating.”
With winter fast approaching, the 11th hour for a fall high school football season has likely passed.
“It’s unfortunate it’s evolved into an uneven playing field,” Lancaster said. “We should either all be out of competition for safety or, if it is safe, we should all be moving forward.
“To see what some of those kids have worked for throughout their high school career taken away is absolutely brutal.”