The Chicago Bears, in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools, created the first Illinois high school girls’ flag football league in 2021.

In its first year, the league consisted of 22 teams all Chicago. Over the next year it expanded to more than 50 teams in the city, and conferences were formed from other Illinois cities such as Rockford and Oak Park.

And now it’s going global.

The Bears join the New York Jets in starting the first intramural flag football league for girls in the UK. The introduction of League Wednesday is on International Women’s Day. Teams from 12 schools will compete over a six-week season in the borough of Ealing, west London, with no schools or players required to take part.

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 would like to be a part of it. And it was a simple answer,” he told the Tribune.

“When you think of American football, you just think it’s a man’s sport. But it’s starting to pass in both men and women. So I think football is the perfect transition to that.”

Gustavo Silva, manager of the Bears’ youth football and community programs, said growth and interest in girls’ flag football had exploded locally and nationally, seeing 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 for Britain, and said, ‘Let’s put this league together and create an equal opportunity for girls in Britain to provide access to the great sport of football, just as we have done here in the US.’”

The number of girls playing sports in the UK decreases with age. In the United States, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any school or other educational program that receives federal funding. There is no such law in the UK.

Silva says the bears want to be leaders in this area.

“It’s about inclusion, accessibility and equity,” he said. “We know the many benefits of participating in athletics. Girls should have access…a fair opportunity to reap these benefits.

“We believe that football is the best team sport there is and that there is so much benefit from both a health and social perspective, just for general wellbeing. We talk about life skills, responsibility and self-worth. Sport helps so much with that, and we believe girls should have access to it, which is why we’ve been so passionate about growing here in the US.

“And we found that there is the same thing around the world. The only problem is that people didn’t have the opportunity. Now that we’ve seen a model that works here, ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

Teams in the new British league will be split into two divisions, representing each NFL affiliate. They play within their division and the division winners play a championship game.

Juliana Zavala, Senior Elementary Sports Manager for the Chicago Public League, has been a coach in the local flag girls’ football league since its inception.

According to Zavala, many of the girls in the program had never exercised before, but jumped at the opportunity because it brings them together and empowers them.

“The girls are excited,” she says. “One of the things they keep telling me is that we have an opportunity to be the same. They know they can do whatever they want and be fearless.

“Usually at halftime in the homecoming game you have powder puffs. Forget that. That doesn’t happen anymore. And it just changes the mindset. So according to the girls, ‘come and watch us play’ is their motto.”

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