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Girls flag football announced as IHSA-sanctioned sport at Halas Hall

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"This is really history for women in sports."

Chicago Public League senior manager of elementary sports Juliana Zavala shared that powerful sentiment at Halas Hall Wednesday following the official announcement of girls flag football becoming a sanctioned sport by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) beginning this fall.

Girls flag football is now one of 40 total sports and activities to have a State Series in 2024-25 and will be given the same officiating and IHSA support that boys tackle football has long had.

Zavala, the Bears' 2023 Inspire Change Changemaker recipient, let her emotions show as she reminded the players of their successes and accomplishments as trailblazers in the sport throughout Illinois and across the country. Zavala added that this moment is something she'll remember for the rest of her life.

"The sanctioning of the sport reminds everyone that we as females, in the world of sports, we do belong," Zavala said. "And to everyone here, the best is yet to come. This is only the beginning. To everyone here that has been a part of this … we did it. We did it, everyone."

The Bears hosted the press conference Wednesday morning, providing another example of how the organization played an instrumental role in the sport's growth. Youth and high school football manager Gustavo Silva worked alongside Zavala to provide new opportunities to thousands of girls across Illinois.

Silva said the Bears' decision to support the sport from all levels was a "no-brainer," whether it was through Bears Care donations, advocacy from the club's leaders or hosting various events such as the state championships at Halas Hall.

"One of the primary goals of the Chicago Bears is to grow the game of football by making it inclusive, accessible, diverse and equitable," Silva said. "So that means everybody. Girls flag football — that's spot on. It's not just the gender equity. You look in the room, you look at the culture diversity, [socioeconomic] diversity, geographic diversity. That's all important.

"Everybody should have access to the great game of football and everything that the great game of football has to offer. For us, the comment we hear the most for young ladies and women is 'I wish they would've had this when I was in high school.' That's haunting, almost, because we didn't want another year to go by and have another group of girls graduating high school that didn't have that opportunity."

Bears President & CEO Kevin Warren and Chairman George H. McCaskey have been vocal supporters of girls flag football. In November of 2023, they co-authored a letter to Illinois high school athletic directors to help push the sanctioning decision forward.

"This is a very, very special and a very, very emotional day to stand before you," Warren said Wednesday. "Any time you get an opportunity to make history is incredibly special. This is long overdue, but the time is now.

"It's not important for us to look back, but to really look forward and to figure out what we can do to make sure that we recognize this is just the beginning of girls flag football in the state of Illinois ... that we can come together to continue to empower these young, talented women."

The decision to approve an IHSA State Series for girls flag football was made by the association's Board of Directors Feb. 5. The inaugural IHSA Girls Flag Football State Championship will be held in the fall of 2024. Over 100 schools have already committed to participate.

During his remarks at the press conference, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson added that over 40 schools "have also committed to starting programs in 2025 and we have no idea where the growth will end."

Anderson also thanking Zavala, Silva and the Bears for championing the sport. He said that girls flag football has evolved faster than any sport he's ever seen.

"Girls flag football has only been on the IHSA radar as a new potential sport for adoption in only a few years and will now have a State Series in just eight short months," Anderson said. "The IHSA is over 100 years old and I can tell you that this type of growth for a sport is unprecedented throughout our history."

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