By Dan Plouffe
The fall sports season is reaching its climax and it won’t be long until winter sports take over.
But before the skates and skis hit the ice and snow comes the National Capital Amateur Football Association’s championship weekend – and with it, the opportunity for winter sports to take a look at a sport where diversity and inclusion have long been embedded.
A major hurdle to participation in winter sports, and plenty more sports, is the specialized – and expensive – equipment required to take part. Football is no different, but players don’t need to buy their equipment, it’s provided by their teams. Why is that?
“It’s just to provide that accessibility to whoever needs it,” explains South Ottawa Mustangs under-14 football coach Dan Cooper, who also serves as the organization’s VP of flag football.
“I’m pretty sure hockey would do it too if they stumbled across the problem set, but they don’t have it,” he adds. “Some sports in Ottawa don’t need to recruit players from the corners of the neighbourhood, whereas our sport and our club in particular, it’s mainly the corners of the neighbourhood that fill the team.”
The Mustangs’ U16 Bantam team is one of the many squads set to play in NCAFA’s league championship games at the Nepean Sportsplex this weekend, with their ‘B’ Cup final set for at 2 p.m. on Saturday against the North Gloucester Giants.
After the final touchdowns are scored and trophies awarded, players will return the equipment they’ve used this year to their clubs, who own it. Equipment and insurance is included as part of players’ registration fees, which tend to be considerably lower than other sports with comparable demands.
“Our club has the lowest fees in the league,” signals Mustangs VP of football operations Alisha Brennan, noting that’s a product of the many low-income neighbourhoods their organization serves around Walkley and Smyth roads. “It makes it difficult for us to ask for any more. I mean, many parents can’t afford to pay the $375 to begin with.”
Most years, maintaining and purchasing new equipment eats up about a quarter of the club’s budget. This year’s expenditures were higher than usual for South Ottawa since they invested in new team training equipment and uniforms with the Mustangs’ new logo (necessary since the NFL put out legal letters to all teams in North America ordering them to stop using their trademarks such as the Denver Broncos logo the Mustangs previously had).
NCAFA clubs in more affluent areas often charge higher registration fees, and some do help out the Mustangs, who were unable to field U12 or U10 teams this season due to an insufficient number of players.
When the Mustangs were short a few pairs of pants for players this season, a nearby club loaned them some, and they’ve had second-hand shoulder pads donated by other clubs too.
At the start of the year, players sign a waiver to say their equipment must be returned at the end.
“I don’t think we would actually come after them if we had to. It’s an attempt to give them a guilty conscience, so, they give it back,” says Cooper, noting equipment theft is very unusual, though sometimes a family might suddenly move out of town and it can get lost in the shuffle.
“We probably break more equipment than gets lost,” he adds. “It’s like anything. Restaurants have an expected loss ratio. I expect one equipment set will disappear every year, so you plan for it.”
Generally, players from given age groups will require similar sized equipment each year, though “you don’t know how big these kids are before they show up, so there has to be a little bit of variety,” Cooper outlines.
Outfitting a player can be a five-minute process “when you’re lucky,” though it can take 45 minutes to get it right for some others.
“There’s a whole lot of tweaking because it’s important that it fits well – that’s what protects them,” Cooper highlights, noting all coaches are nationally-trained in concussion-related protocols.
Helmets require the most attention. A new football helmet can cost between $300-$500, while the rest of the equipment set goes for about the same amount.
Football helmets can have up to a 10-year life. Every two years, the helmets need to be sent to the Riddell manufacturer in Texas for reconditioning, which costs about $200 per helmet.
“They strip them down, check every piece of it, every component, they repaint them, put them all back together and certify it,” details Brennan, one of volunteers involved in organizing equipment distribution.
The Mustangs hold a couple of fitting days at the start of the season. Players go two-by-two into the club’s small caged room at Canterbury Community Centre, with some South Ottawa reps managing fittings and others taking care of paperwork. The Mustangs stash 125 sets of equipment into a roughly 200 square-foot space.
“New players, you can see them light up the first time they get their equipment,” signals Cooper. “It’s like a warrior getting their suit of armour on. They’re like, ‘Wow, look how big I am, Mom or Dad,’ or whoever’s with them.”
A considerable number of Mustangs are only able to play thanks to funding from Canadian Tire Corp.’s Jumpstart program. Some other families weren’t eligible this year because their wages rose above the cutoff line, though their cost of living expenses outpaced that growth and they still couldn’t pay. So in stepped other players’ families and community members to pay their registrations.
“We worry about the money later,” Cooper underlines. “I mean, we need it to keep things running, but we need the kids to be involved. If they really want to do it, and their parents really can’t afford it, we’ll figure it out.”
The spirit to help out runs strong in football, where many past players who got a lot from the sport step up to give back themselves.
“We have kids who take the bus, walk or carpool with other families. Coaches will go and pick up players for every practice and every game and drive them home, even when it’s in Cornwall,” smiles Brennan. “Anything to get the kids out there.”
She hopes that players will gain valuable life lessons from playing.
“I mean, football is the ultimate team sport, right?” Brennan explains. “There’s no position on the field that does not rely on every other player to do their job too. So it’s learning that responsibility.”
Cooper says football can provide friends, a bit of an extended family, maybe a place to stay out of trouble, and for some, it could be a way out of their challenging backgrounds.
“You’ve seen the Hollywood stories,” he highlights. “We have examples in the NFL who came through the program from the worst neighbourhoods in Ottawa.”
Cooper notes that the Mustangs are always looking for sponsors and people who are willing to help out to “make all of this magic happen.”
“Look, practice ended half an hour ago and these guys are all still here having fun,” Cooper says from the sidelines at Kaladar Park. “That’s an indication that they’re doing this because they love it.
“And if you look at the diversity in that picture, it’s amazing. They don’t care about any of that. They just have fun together.”
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
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