Flag football is now an Olympic sport — and the Chicago Bears hope local outreach continues to grow the game

On the eve of the second girls flag football state championship in Illinois, it was announced that the sport will be played by women and men at the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

Added with four other sports — baseball/softball, cricket, lacrosse and squash — by the International Olympic Committee on Monday, the news was received enthusiastically by Gustavo Silva, the Chicago Bears manager of youth football and community programs.

“This is a big moment for all of us,” Silva said. “Anybody that loves the game of football, this is a good day. The bar has been raised. It’s exciting to think that governments and corporate sponsors are going to now support it more because everything has to be multiplied to the next level. That’s the challenge ahead of us. But it is a challenge that we welcome.”

Silva has been a big proponent of girls flag football in Illinois. Last fall, he was at the Walter Payton Center, along with Bears Care, hosting the first girls flag state championship. This summer, Silva was on the Lake Forest campus when the Bears hosted a meet-and-greet with local players and coaches and Diana Flores, the captain and quarterback for Mexico’s national women’s flag football team.

Silva said the Bears have been putting money and resources behind girls flag football programming with the hope that the sport can serve as a more accessible, equitable and inclusive path to the football ecosystem for girls and women.

Last year, Silva was focused on making sure flag football would become an Illinois High School Association-sanctioned varsity sport. The Chicago Bears Girls Flag Football Program collaborated with Chicago Public Schools in 2021 and created a girls flag football league with 22 CPS teams. The league has since expanded to more than 100 teams across the state, including more than 60 CPS schools and additional leagues in Rockford and the western suburbs.

This year, Emma Jazmin Valenzuela, Karla Rodriguez Martinez and Saniya Shotwell, all part of the Bears girls flag football leagues, accepted college scholarship offers in flag football.

“It’s in the process … it’s going to be official in February. Everything is indicating that is going to happen,” Silva said of the IHSA sanctioning girls flag football. “Think about what this news does for that decision. How do you vote against an Olympic sport?

“It’s going to create a lot of positive momentum, positive pressure to grow the game at the grassroots level. Grassroots is really what has grown this thing to the Olympic movement, but the Olympic movement in turn is going to really push grassroots.”

Now with flag football in the 2028 Summer Olympic Games, Silva’s personal goal is making sure girls from Chicago are on that inaugural team. He was in Los Angeles when the Olympics were played there in 1984, and he hopes to be in his home state in 2028 to see flag football take its first Olympic steps.

“To be a little piece of sand within that ecosystem that has grown the game of football is tremendously humbling and gratifying,” Silva said. “In terms of the interest in it from the games that I’ve gone to see, and so many schools playing it as a homecoming game, there’s a tremendous amount of support there. The interest in this has grown tremendously.

“I think that next year when it is an official IHSA sport and we do have championships in a big venue, I would expect the stands to be packed and for it to have support on par with boys football.”

The Tribune spoke with Silva to learn more about the next steps after the Olympic announcement. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Were people on the edge of their seats with the decision or did you firmly think it was going to happen?

Both. We were definitely on the edge of our seats, but we did feel very strongly that it would be … when you’re in and you’re living it, you can see how much momentum there is and how much desire is raised for the game. And myself having the privilege to do some of our international initiatives in terms of the growth of youth football in the UK and in Spain, I’ve experienced it firsthand.

I know that there’s a desire for this throughout the world. So I felt like it was there. But until you see it, until you hear that announcement.

I woke up to the announcement. I got an email from a colleague first thing this morning and the first message I sent was to Diana Flores congratulating her because I know how much this means to her, to Amber Clark and to thousands of girls that have taken on this sport, especially here in Chicago. I know that they’ve taken on this dream to play at the collegiate level, to play in the Olympics one day, and it just becomes that much more tangible for them. It’s tremendously gratifying.

What are the next steps to making flag football a professional sport?

It’s already happening in some places where very small leagues are starting to come about. For it to happen in a way that’s sustainable, I think that’s going to be post-Olympics.

If the game of flag football both on the women’s and men’s sides has the tremendous success that we expect it will, I think there will be the hunger and the desire for seeing some kind of professional league so that athletes have the opportunity to continue to compete and grow as flag football players in those years between the Olympics.

A lot of these athletes are working full-time jobs. Diana talked to us a little bit about the sacrifices that a lot of her teammates have to make just to be on a team. This Olympic announcement is now going to hopefully push a lot of resources throughout the world for these athletes so that they can focus more on being athletes and representing their country and bringing home a medal for their country. So that they don’t have to sacrifice so much. And it doesn’t have to be such a struggle for them to be able to showcase their skills.

And I believe that’s going to be the case here in the States. And I believe that’s going to be the case in a lot of places throughout the world. I think that the potential for a professional league or professional opportunities are going to come post-Olympics, but just in terms of resources, I think it’s going to create a lot more opportunities for a lot of other athletes to be a full-time athlete.

What will the Olympic announcement do in terms of excitement for the girls flag football championships this month?

Oct. 28 and 29, our state championships will take place at Halas Hall again. And actually, all of our local girls teams are in their playoffs. A lot of them played the first round or their playoffs this past weekend.

On the weekend of Oct. 21 we expect nine teams to qualify for the state tournament. I am going over to Lane Stadium in Chicago to watch the Chicago Public League have its championships on that day. But all the other leagues are also having their championships on that day as well.

It’s going to amp up the excitement of the girls. It’s going to amp up the attention that’s given to the sport. It does make it that much more meaningful because a lot of the girls talk about wanting to play at the collegiate level and one day wanting to playing in the Olympics, and it’s such a huge step to remove that “if” — “if it becomes an Olympic sport.” It is an Olympic sport and now they have five years to get ready.

To the athletes that are playing at the high school level, playing at the collegiate level, and to some athletes that haven’t taken on the sport, (they) may say, “Hey, now this is an Olympic sport, now I’m going to take on this sport.” That’s why I think that the growth is going to simply explode because so many athletes talk about watching the Olympics when they’re young and having that moment of “I want to do that.”

Now, to watch flag football in the Olympics, how many millions of athletes around the world are going to watch it and say, “I want to do that.” That’s going to be the catalyst that’s going to spark a dream in them.


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