Amidst a flurry of news coming from the British American Football Association (BAFA) yesterday, the sport’s National Governing Body announced changes to the age ranges for various competitions. Changes have been made to the eligibility dates for National Leagues competitions taking place in 2017.
In a move designed to align player registration with academic school year, the 31st August in the year prior to competition will now be used as a cut-off point for the U19 contact, U17 contact, U17 flag and U12 flag competitions. There are no changes in any other BAFA National League competitions.
As noted by BAFA, this move has been “long discussed by administrators, coaches and other participants in the sport”. The timing, however, has been a cause for concern amongst some in the community. Thankfully, unlike the mid-season announcement from BUCS regarding promotion/relegation in Uniball, BAFA decided to announce the change prior to the season beginning.
This change acknowledges the key influence of friendship as motivator for young people to take part in sport, and also BAFA’s drive to support grass-roots American Football, and the recent news of the landmark step forward for American football in English schools…
…This change has actually widened the participation catchment by 4 months (young player born in September, October, November and December who might previously have been excluded are now eligible to compete with their school peers) – British American Football Association
When Double Coverage reached out to Jonathan Homer (Manchester Titans GM) and Robbie Paulin (Highland Wildcats Head Coach), both were supportive of the reasons behind the change, and some of the benefits it brings to Junior (U19) football.
This is a move we support and something that we have lobbied for. Without going into the intricacies of the Scottish school year, this alignment makes a lot more sense in terms of keeping friendship groups together and aligning our programmes with those we run in schools. At the top end it helps U19, giving an extra 4 months and brings the 1st year University students into U19 football – Jonathan Homer, Manchester Titans
However, there are a number of issues that either still remain or arise as a result of the change. Firstly, while dual-eligibility remains, an already suffering level of the sport will be squeezed even further. More players may opt to remain at Youth level at the age of 17, rather than make the move up to Junior, and then the following season be eligible for Adult contact, completely side-stepping Junior football. Of course, it is the responsibility of a club’s coaches and welfare staff to ensure players are not put in a position of risk to either themselves or others. Whilst BAFA has not mandated a ‘no crossover’ policy, there are some clubs that take it upon themselves;
Coaches and club management can make this internal step themselves without being told. The Lions operate a ‘no up, no down’ policy already, because we believe it serves the development of both players and the wider game in general – Greg Cross, Birmingham Lions Juniors.
However, too many other sides still take advantage of dual-eligibility. Many believe that teams should be sending their ‘bigger’ players up to the next level, not flooding Youth 5-man with Junior eligible 9-man players. But until BAFA removes this option, and mandates single registration/eligibility, this problem will remain.
It’s tricky, because of how kids develop differently. Some 17 year olds need to stay at U17, while others are fully grown and should be nowhere near it. Coaches abuse this, and hold players in U17. How do you police that? You can’t really – Jonathan Homer, Manchester Titans
We encourage all our 16+ to dual format as soon as they turn of age. The training brings their game on a lot – Matthew Davies, East Kilbride Pirates
Similarly, until BAFA insist on teams – either existing clubs or new starters – having a Youth and Junior side, there will be no carrot, no incentive for sides to support the dwindling Junior game. A total of 19 sides competed at Junior level in 2016. NINETEEN. That’s compared to the 61 adult sides that completed the same campaign (excluding those who forfeited prior to, or during, the season). Quite simply, it is clearly evident that clubs up and down the country do not consider having a Junior side a high enough agenda item. Do the current BAFA board have the courage to change from a carrot to a stick-based approach? The idea of forcing teams to have Youth and Junior sides has been talked about for years, but we continue to see the Junior game suffering.
Another issue is that the change could potentially create a 4 year age gap between competing players. If a player turns 17 on 1 September the year prior to competition, they could – if their side were to reach the final – be 18 years of age and playing against 14 year olds. Man versus boy. BAFA would need to ensure that Britbowl finals are played before 31 August each year to ensure this doesn’t happen. One other possibility is to remove 17 year olds from Youth football all together, making the competition for those aged 14-16 instead, and to change Adult eligibility from 18+ to 19+.
In isolation, this change does nothing but provide hope that participation increases by bringing school friends together. Unless there is tangible evidence in time to support this, however, the change is meaningless. Further changes are required to ensure the sustainability of Junior football across the United Kingdom.