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Safety Essentials of USA Football’s League Excellence Program

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USA Football created the League Excellence Program to raise operational standards with leagues throughout the country. Together with parents, athletes, coaches, volunteers, and administrators the goal of the League Excellence Program is to help improve the game that they've come to expect and deserve with a focus on putting athletes first and establishing credibility with the parents. This program goes hand in hand with the Football Development Model that was released earlier this year which provides guidelines on how the game is taught and played. 

USA Football representatives sat down with Suzanne Boyd, National Governing Body Account Manager with National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI) for a Q & A session on the importance of background checks and abuse prevention training as part of the primary safety essentials of USA Football's League Excellence Program. .

Why was the League Excellence Program established?

Ryan Horning, General Counsel, USA Football: This is a mission-based element for us. We're here to advance, unify and grow football in every way that we can. And that includes obviously best practices, standards, assistance for leagues across the board, and running the best operations that they can. And we recognize that all of these things are done locally. They're done in communities across the nation, they're done in the football league down the street from you or your neighbor. We want to help them get operationally the best standards in place, the best practices in place, both with the football development model, when it comes to background checks, when it comes to insurance, and other items that may come in over time. We want leagues to get to those levels and then we want to recognize and celebrate all the organizations that are doing that. We want to celebrate putting athletes first, and celebrate all of the great work that's being done by volunteers across the nation that help run these leagues. This is the perfect time to put a program like this in place, to get the tools in place the leagues can use to help them grow, and then celebrate them along their journey as they advance in the League Excellence Program. We're very excited to do it. 

Can you describe the League Excellence program and how a League can advance to the next level?

Ryan Horning, USA Football: The program advances from a bronze, silver, to gold level. Bronze includes items like: certify your coaches, make sure your insurance is in place, etc. The gold level means you're implementing the entire Football Development Model, you're doing all the things that have been recommended by USA Football, and along the way you're certifying to us that you're doing those things: you're getting all of your coaches background checked, you're getting all your coaches certified, you're layering in the elements of FDM and making sure that the athletes are being taught the right concepts. What we wanted to do is not just put all those requirements out there and let them sit and let leagues figure it out for themselves, because we recognized that wouldn't be helpful. So you'll see tools coming from USA Football like the football development model and others. You'll also see our partners who we bring in, who we've screened and vetted to make sure they're the best in the business and they can help get leagues to where leagues want and need to be. We are very proud to partner with SportsEngine, Inc. and its subsidiary, National Center for Safety Initiatives, around the safety aspects of the League Excellence Program. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge. Our contact at NCSI, Suzanne Boyd, is certainly among the best in the business when it comes to what she does and she is going to give a more in-depth overview of NCSI and SportsEngine.

Tell us about NCSI and its role in the League Excellence Program  

Suzanne Boyd, NGB Sr. Account Manager, NCSI: National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI) was founded in 2005 by Trish Sylvia. NCSI has led the way in delivering the gold standard of safety for NGB's in youth sports organizations throughout the United States. In 2017, SportsEngine acquired NCSI, working directly through SportsEngine's software platform to deliver background screening. SportsEngine is the leader in software tools for youth sports clubs, teams, and leagues to help them engage in registration, payments, and team communications. SportsEngine cares about three things:

  1. Getting more kids active in sports
  2. Making sure they are safe
  3. Making the lives easier of parents, coaches, and team administrators

With NCSI's commitment to athlete safety through comprehensive background checks, the partnership between NCSI and SportsEngine was a perfect fit.

Share a little bit about what sets NCSI background checks apart from some of the others that you might see in the marketplace today?

Suzanne Boyd, NCSI: NCSI leads the youth sports safety movement and advocates for the vulnerable youth of today. NCSI advances safety policy through influence and education while supporting youth-centered organizations and safeguarding communities with comprehensive safety services.  

No other background screening provider will dig deeper or work harder to protect today’s youth. When you work with NCSI you’re joining a passionate community of youth safety champions and aligning your organization with the leader in youth safety.

NCSI is proud to serve some of the most prominent and impactful youth sports and volunteer organizations in the United States, including the USOPC and more than 50 National Governing Bodies.

I have the passion to make sure that what we're providing to the NGB's is the best in class and best in service in background screening and safety. Also, with that, what sets us apart from other background screening companies is that each background screen that comes into NCSI is handled by a human being. It's not a computer that is looking at this information.

In your opinion, why in this day and age is it important to incorporate abuse training into your overall operations of any sports league, particularly as it relates to football.

Suzanne Boyd, NCSI: The Safe Sport Act that became law in 2017 requires that all coaches and volunteers who interact with youth take abuse prevention and awareness training. There are other requirements that are part of the Safe Sport Act, including mandated reporting of any instances of abuse to proper authorities, but the primary goal of the training is to help make coaches and volunteers aware of the warning signs of abuse, the characteristics of an abuser, and the facts and misconceptions of abuse in order to stop it from happening in the first place.

Abuse Prevention Training that meets the federal Safe Sport requirement is offered directly within the SportsEngine platform which is integrated with NCSI’s background check platform. Together, the comprehensive background check and the abuse prevention training along with the support of USA Football will help ensure the safety of your athletes on and off the field.

Do you have different levels of background check screening, and can you talk a little bit about that?

Suzanne Boyd, NCSI: Yes we do. We have the comprehensive Gold Standard screening, and the USA Football standard, that has several different search components than the USOPC standard. The USOPC in 2019 approved, for the first time, that NGB's within the USOPC will be required to meet a certain set of guidelines for background screening. USA Football has adopted that program as well as the USA Football Standard. The difference is the county searches that get searched, federal district court searches, and the difference in pricing. Most screens do have a re-check at the 12-month mark, so you're getting a 2-year screen just by putting your information in when you come in. After 2 years, you'd submit a background screen again. It is up to the individual football league for which background screen they would like when they are signing up for SportsEngine and NCSI.

What do you think the motivation right now would be for starting a program in 2020 and beyond?

Suzanne Boyd, NCSI: Well, I think that is exactly the right time to do it. We've all seen across the sports landscape what has happened over the past several years when it comes to athlete safety, particularly with minors. For USA Football, we want to ensure the best practices are adhered to for minor athletes across the nation. 

What we're seeking to do with this program is really improve youth football, and standardize it the best we can. We work with leagues to be the best that they can be, and these are items right now that leagues need to be concerned with. 

You want to make sure that parents feel comfortable when they drop their children off to play sports - whether it is football or any other sport. We've been proud partners of USA Football since 2010. For some time now, we have done background checks and shared the commitment to youth safety. NCSI wants to make sure what we are offering to USA Football is the best in class for background screens and safety education. We dig deeper and go further than just background screens for USA Football - we're doing Abuse Prevention Training, we're also speaking at USA Football conferences, and sharing how you can make sure that your leagues are best in class on safety standards.

Ryan Horning, USA Football: The value in the partnership is breadth and depth in experience across the board. People know SportsEngine from the platform side historically when it comes to registration and communications. We were looking for a partner from a safety perspective that could provide a number of things:

  1. Abuse prevention training that we could put in our certifications and get out to everyone on mass
  2. A quality and well-recognized background check partner
  3. With SportsEngine and NCSI and the elements they have, you are getting the best in sports safety across the nation. 

As a league administrator, how does this make my program stronger? What does this do for me?

Ryan Horning, USA Football: When you look at this from a league administrative point of view, there are several points:  

  1. We're compiling the essentials for you that you should be looking at as an admin in putting athletes and safety first in your program
  2. In looking at how we should teach the kids and what concepts they should be learning, when you look at the League Excellence Program and in connection with that, the football development model - you are getting the best tools and resources that you should be using and teaching your kids with right now.
  3. We're going to put spotlights on the leagues that are doing these things - from bronze, silver, to gold - as leagues make progressions through you are going to get increased benefits and recognition that you are doing things the right way and that USA Football is standing behind what you are doing. That seal of approval in terms of your league really being spotlighted for all the right things when it comes to safety.

So how can a USA Football league get started? 

You can learn more at USAFootball.com/Excellence and you can find information about setting up your background check and safety program through NCSI at https://www.sportsengine.com/join/usa-football

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