TSN broadcaster Farhan Lalji is passionate about high school football in B.C. and advocating for its return this fall, despite knowing the 11th hour may already have passed.
His 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.
Lalji took this season off to coach another gridiron gang, his 12-year-old son’s New Westminster youth football team. He remains on B.C. High School Football’s board of directors and sits on the return-to-play committee.
At the heart of Lalji’s qualms is this question: Why have club and community youth sports been green-lighted amid the pandemic in B.C., while high school sports are reduced to skeleton form?
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, 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 practises are permitted.
Lalji answered questions from KTW on Wednesday:
KTW: In your mind, what are the real reasons football and other B.C. High School Sports are not happening right now?
FL: The government and the local school districts aren’t comfortable with it.
Truthfully, more in the case of the government, I just don’t think they want to deal with it quite yet. It doesn’t make sense that youth sports are being played and high school sports are not being played. I’m really happy they’ve been able to find safe ways for youth sport to be played. Have there been the odd cases [of novel coronavirus] in youth sports? [Provincial Health Officer] Bonnie Henry alluded to that last week, but certainly not outbreaks and nothing that’s affecting our numbers outside of regular transmission.
Sport at the amateur levels in B.C. has done a really good job. I’ve seen a lot of the safety plans and protocols that PSOs [Provincial Sport Organizations] have put in place. It’s effective and aggressive and inconvenient and all of those things it’s supposed to be.
You have to wrap your head around the fact there is an assumption that every minor sports athlete is in an academic cohort. They’re all in school. They’re all in cohorts. The fact that high school sports can’t continue with the same limitations and restrictions youth sports has, doesn’t make sense to me.
KTW: What are the broader stokes, the ramifications on the provincial scene as a whole, if there is no season?
FL: It can’t have a positive effect on any school sport, right? 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.
You’d wind up with four or five really good clubs that think they’re doing a great job and are travelling in the U.S. all the time, and that’s all well and good, but you would never get a provincial championship that looks like it currently does at the LEC [Langley Events Centre] or, back in the day when I grew up, in the Agrodome. Those are special things for athletes. The privatization, club model simply can’t offer that.
There are kids who will only play the sport if it’s connected to the school. There is a convenience to going after school to practice. There’s the whole thing of your friends in the building and having those connections. It’s the at-risk kids that are only connected to school because of sport, and all the mental-health ramifications.
I’m not putting any of those 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.
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. These kids are having their senior years, these opportunities, potential scholarships, taken away because of contact tracing.
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. They’re trying to get re-elected. By the time they get named back to their ministries and those ministries are functioning and are up and running, the fall season is going to be over. They just waited us out and it’s unfortunate for these guys.
KTW: What else is on your mind?
FL: I really feel sorry for the senior class. What’s happened, in football, at the CIS [U Sports] level, and really in all sports, everyone has been given a year of eligibility back. People feel a level of sympathy that he lost his senior season. Well, that kid’s played six years of post-secondary football. I’m more concerned about the kid going into his senior year of high school football that’s not getting to play that year and because of that is going to lose his university opportunity.
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 football coaches. These other kids [university seniors] got an extra year, so they’re [Grade 12s] taking it on both ends.
KTW: Is it too late to have a high school football season?
FL: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s not too late, but we’re coming down to the final days here. You need two weeks to get up and running. Today is the 21st [Oct. 21]. Now you’ve got a provincial election coming up on the 24th. By the time anyone would even consider taking a look at this, we’re going to be into November. Then what? We have a three-week season if we extend it into December? Look, we’ll give these kids anything we can give them. If you tell us it’s three weeks, we’ll play three weeks. They’re waiting us out here. It’s an outdoor sport. You can’t take it to Christmas.
I know school sports [B.C. School Sports] isn’t really anxious to let us flip our season to the spring because you don’t want to impact the spring sports. Do you want have a football season in the spring, followed by a football season in the fall? Is that the safest thing?
I’m certainly invested because I’m still on the board and I care deeply about the kids I’ve coached, even if I’m not coaching them this year. I have a difficult time. 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 that didn’t get their gifts at Christmas watching everybody else get their gifts.
I love these kids. I still talk to the players I had last year regularly. They come to me because they know I’m involved. ‘Any update coach? Any update?’ I get those texts daily from those guys and I wish I had better news for them.
KTW: Are there any issues you feel aren’t being talked about enough in relation to high school sports and COVID?
FL: Not enough is being made of — why are we doing cohorts? And, No. 2, the difference is we’re dealing with politicians. It’s not safety reasons that are preventing this from happening. This is about optics, liability and someone wanting someone else to make a decision.
KTW: Morally, should we playing sports right now at that level?
FL: Yes. We should. It matters. Unless you can show me how playing amateur sports has completely spiked our numbers. Then we can have a different conversation.
The science backs it up. When the government goes back and does its tracing, they’re not tracing an extensive amount of the spike we’ve had in the last few months to amateur sport.
Can you make the case the entire province needs to scale back to Phase 2? I can’t answer that. But if other sectors of the province are allowed to be open, and you can debate what is essential services and what is crucial to the economy and so on, but I do believe the mental health aspects and the other things these kids get out of sports, I believe it matters. Not at the expense of everybody’s health, but someone has to show me how it has affected everybody’s health. Show me a bunch of outbreaks that have been the direct result of amateur sports. If you can show me that, we can have this discussion. There has been some, but I’ve seen very little of it. The ministry has deemed it safe. I would hope the only way they would deem it unsafe is if the entire province got scaled back, not just sports.
They haven’t been able to single out sport as a reason for the case increase. As long as that’s the case, and sport is allowed to continue along with the rest of the province in Phase 3, then school sports should be no different.
Sports had to wait to get to this point and it hasn’t hurt the greater good. So I think it should extend into the school system.