By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
An online petition has quickly circulated social media, requesting that the Municipality of Chatham-Kent stop charging the flag football league for the use of Lark Park.
In less than 24 hours, it received 650 signatures.
Jason Reynolds, organizer of the Chatham-Kent Kids Flag Football League, started the petition after the municipality requested that he pay for use of the field.
Reynolds has been playing flag football for the past three decades. Nine years ago, he started the kids’ league and aimed to keep prices as low as possible.
The league was “running it kind of under the radar” for the past several years, until the city contacted Reynolds a few years ago asking that games be run through their field allocation process.
“The costs were so high that I had to ask for a meeting with the mayor, and try to get them to reduce it. Because for me my goal has always been to keep costs low. I want to keep kids off the street and give them something positive to do,” he said. “So those kids that I have tried to target are a lot of low income kids.”
Jeff Bray, manager of Parks and Open Spaces, says the municipality is in no way trying to shut down the league; rather it is a question of fairness for all the other sports leagues.
Every league must follow the proper field allocation process which requires that teams have insurance and also pay for field maintenance.
The municipality was previously charging the league more to cover the insurance. Since the team got insurance, the cost would be reduced to $10.54 per youth.
“We’re not trying to discourage anyone from playing. We want everyone to have fun,” Bray said. “It’s for equality. All the other soccer and baseball associations across the municipality pay the $10 per youth player fee. Other associations would question why they have to pay and (the flag football league) doesn’t.”
The $10 per youth fee would cover the cost of maintenance for the field. Every year the league serves between 60-70 young athletes.
If the field is booked as a sports field, then the parks department would cut the grass more often than it currently does, Bray said.
“The costs for all that work far exceeds $10 per person,” he said.
Reynolds said he would be happy to maintain the field himself to avoid the extra charges from the municipality. For the past five years, he has been putting in 14 hours a week voluntarily cutting the field so the kids can play.
However, Bray said people aren’t allowed to work on municipal property without liability insurance. Should an accident occur, the municipality could get sued.
Reynolds said when he did not have insurance, he was charged between $1,000 and $1,200 just for the use of the field.
Reynolds said he recently signed a deal with Under Armour, a sports footwear and apparel company. The company charges each kid $150, which covers the insurance costs, jerseys, shorts and medals. Reynolds also gets compensated an average of $15 per player for his work coaching and promoting the league.
Reynolds said the sponsorship deal, which he claims to be the least expensive in the country, has opened up new opportunities for the kids who are now able to enter better tournaments, even qualifying for nationals before COVID.
Bray said funding is always available for sports teams who want to help subsidize under-privileged kids.
“I don’t want to exclude anybody based on price and the city’s response to me was, ‘Well, you can pay these fees to use the field by raising your price. Or to apply for funding.’ But I almost find that silly, that I should have to apply for money from the city to pay the city, when the city doesn’t actually do anything to help me.” Reynolds said.
This past season they were renting the field from the local school board for only $150, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the schools to shut everything down.