Tampa youth football lease ends with gun violence – Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — Edward “Butch” Taylor played running back for 13 seasons, first as a child at the Tampa Bay Youth Football League and later in high school. Now 61, he said his most significant football injury came Dec. 11 when a bullet struck the index and middle fingers on his right hand as he attempted to break up an on-field melee among teenage players in the league, their coaches and adult fans at Skyway Park.
The worse pain, however, came a few days later. Hillsborough County locked the football league out of the Skyway Park premises and later said it was evicting the Tampa Bay Youth Football League from the complex at Rocky Point that had been its home for 53 years.
“I thought they (Hillsborough County officials) would support us, be there to help us,” said Taylor, “not treat me as if I was the one who caused it.”
Taylor is a coach, president and executive director of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, an organization he’s been affiliated with for 33 years. The league, which had 14 teams and nearly 5,000 participants registered for the 2021 season, is headquartered at Skyway Park, a county-managed complex of two football fields, baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts, a trail and playground.
The football league’s brand is highly visible at the park with signs, banners and the “TBYFL” emblem adorning the padding affixed to the goal posts.
But not for much longer.
The county said it is ending the league’s long-standing field use agreement for safety reasons, saying it failed to provide adequate security or control the size and behavior of the crowd on Dec. 11. It followed concerns the county had voiced earlier that week after neighborhood complaints about noise, overflow parking and litter following the games of Dec. 4.
“They’re tired of Skyway Park being left a mess. They’re tired of cars being parked in their neighborhood because of overflow from the parking lot at Skyway during football games,” Rick Valdez, the county’s director of parks and recreation, said during a Jan. 27 virtual meeting with league officers.
Jose Camacho, a league vice president, acknowledged that Tampa Bay Youth Football League personnel may have had “a major level of complacency” because they’ve been running the games for so many years. But, he also said, the county could have pulled the plug on the Dec. 11 event if it had serious safety concerns.
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Ending the field use agreement could result in families paying more to play football or cheerlead, Camacho said. They would effectively be punished for the actions of a few.
The league uses money it makes from signup fees and concessions to help offset the cost for kids to participate. An estimated three-quarters of the league’s members are from lower income Black and Hispanic families who could get priced out of playing youth football.
“It’s a blatant attempt to rip (from) our Black and brown children more opportunities and resources,” said Erica Davis, whose children are part of the West Tampa Spartans. “We are now hundreds of parents and community members left feeling helpless and bullied by government establishments.”
League officers also say they are being scapegoated because of an ulterior motive — they believe the county parks and recreation department sees a possible revenue stream. Taylor said the concession stand can net as much as $8,000 on a Saturday.
“This is just a way to take over. It’s all about money. It’s nothing about kids,” said Tony Watkins, a league vice president.
Valdez refuted the accusations.
“At no point did money play into our decision, which was based solely on public safety and our desire to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for participants and park visitors,” he said in an email response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times.
Football games will continue at Skyway Park, he told the league, but under the direction of the county and city of Tampa.
Tampa Bay Youth Football League acts as the umbrella group for individual football organizations from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that field teams in nine age groups. Its alumni include Pittsburg Steeler wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud; New England Patriot Nelson Agholor, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles; and the late Reche Caldwell, who played with four NFL teams after starring at the University of Florida.
Each organization pays $45 per child to the league. Tampa Bay Youth Football uses that per-child fee, plus concession stand proceeds and game-day donations at the gate, to offset costs of referees, insurance, security, registered nurses on site, trophies and other expenses, including off-season sod replacement at Skyway. The insurance and game-day costs are covered not just at Skyway, but at the game fields for each of the league’s participants.
The league’s field use agreement also gives it right of first refusal on nonleague events. So the Tampa Bay Youth Football League operates and profits from concession sales during Friday night flag football games run by another organization, as well as other events at Skyway.
Those fundraising opportunities will be lost once the league vacates Skyway and turns management over to Hillsborough County, said league officers.
“That price tag will flip over to parents,” said Camacho.
Tampa Bay Youth Football’s goal, according to its mission statement, is to use football and cheerleading to teach youngsters “the fundamentals of citizenship and to aid them in the development of character and good health.” It also promotes good study habits and the importance of staying in school.
But, some nearby residents complained to the county that the daylong football and cheerleader activities on Saturdays are not about citizenship. They call them a nuisance because of overflow crowds that leave vehicles parked in unauthorized areas and trash strewn around the park.
In December, Christina Sanchez Miller of Dana Shores sent emails to elected county commissioners, their park advisory board and parks and recreation department staff contending Skyway’s unkempt conditions following Saturday football games have been ongoing for at least 10 years. She asked the county to end the field use agreement at Skyway Park and suggested the league shouldn’t be allowed at any county park.
County records from October 2020 to December 2021, however, show only one warning issued to the league for trash not being picked up at Skyway Park. That came in July 2021. Former league director Scott Levinson, a Republican candidate for Hillsborough County Commission, said he didn’t recall that complaint, but said league cleanup crews always arrived early Sunday mornings to pick up the debris left from the previous day and evening.
Food waste on the tennis courts and litter in the parking lot didn’t put the league in the county’s crosshairs. The broader examination came after the league’s semi-final playoff games on Dec. 11 that ended with Taylor and another man suffering gunshot wounds in a postgame melee.
Witness statements provided to Hillsborough County describe a chaotic scene of postgame taunting among 13- and 14-year-old players, coaches and fans of the Lakewood Junior Spartans and the Bay Area Jaguars. It turned into helmets swung, punches thrown and adults climbing over a chain-link fence to join the fighting before three shots were fired.
Two Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies were on hand earlier in the day, but left at 1:30 p.m. after a four-hour shift. They were not replaced for the late afternoon and evening games. The league had one armed security guard on duty.
Taylor was coaching the West Tampa Spartans on the adjoining field when the fight started. While he was trying to intercede, he said, a coach from the Lakewood team threw punches at him and called him names.
“I saw several young men carrying firearms. They surrounded (Tampa Bay Youth Football League) personnel exiting field two and started to throw punches and I saw the first guy reach for his gun, so I jumped in and grabbed his arm by his wrist,” Taylor said in his statement.
He also grabbed a second man, he said, when that person reached for a firearm.
“So I ran into both shooters and tried to continue to hold their arms and that’s when the first shot went off,” he said. A second shot followed a few seconds later and then people ran away, he said.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Taylor said he initially thought his injury came from hitting his hand against a chain link fence as he pushed the armed men. He didn’t realize it was a gunshot wound until later.
Four days after the shooting, Tampa Police arrested 37-year-old Michael E. Allen on charges that included aggravated battery with a deadly weapon in connection with the incident. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges less than a week later.
Allen is Taylor’s stepson and was in charge of checking patrons’ bags at the front entrance. Taylor said authorities dismissed the complaint after video evidence and witness statements exonerated Allen.
Tampa police declined to release investigative reports about the shooting because it is an open case.
Taylor identified the other shooting victim as one of the combatants. The video turned over to police indicated his wound may have been self-inflicted from his own firearm, Taylor said.
Afterward, Tampa Bay Youth Football banished the Lakewood team from the league and put the Bay Area Jaguars on probation and fined the team $1,200.
The punishment, however, was just starting.
Valdez ordered the locks changed Dec. 14, according to an email from David Ramirez, the department’s athletics manager, to two county staffers. It cited “a change in leadership at Skyway Sports Complex. Per our director (Valdez), please expedite the below service request tickets as soon as possible.”
On Jan. 13, the county’s parks advisory board recommended ending the field use agreement after hearing from Valdez and the grievances from Sanchez Miller, the Dana Shores resident, and her husband, Michael.
Taylor and Camacho learned the field use agreement was being terminated during the Jan. 27 virtual meeting with Valdez, Ramirez and other county personnel.
Valdez cited complaints from the neighborhood and the league failing to do sufficient background checks on its participants as the reasons for his decision.
On Jan. 19, the county specifically asked if Allen, the man arrested then cleared, had undergone a background check. He had not, the league said. (Allen has a prior criminal record, the most serious part of which was a 2006 felony arrest for cocaine possession, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.)
County policy requires leagues to follow applicable state laws and to do background checks on all volunteers. The league, however, said the state calls for checks on coaches, referees and adults who will spend at least 20 hours interacting with the players or cheerleaders during the season. Concession stand volunteers and people checking bags at the gate had never had background checks, league officers said, because they don’t spend 20 hours with the children.
Valdez said his decision is not appealable. The eviction is effective March 2.
Taylor said his biggest concern now is for the players and cheerleaders.
The county previously ended the field use agreement with Skyway Little League and made those fields available for travel teams, adult softball and others. The Little League, Taylor said, disbanded. He fears a repeat for Tampa Bay Youth Football League participants, sending kids to the street instead of to the gridiron.
“If we lose this,” he said, “we could lose all those kids.”
Hillsborough County Reporter

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