The Rise of Flag Football: Tackling the Tough Calls In This Most-Watched Sport

Jan 30, 2020 11:05:55 AM / by Garland Allen

Incourage Flag Football

While many of us were focused on the Pro Bowl, a different kind of championship football game was also happening in Orlando: the NFL Flag Football Championships.

Held in conjunction with Pro Bowl Week, the NFL Flag Football Championships crowned winners in four divisions: 9-10 Coed, 11-12 Coed, 13-14 Girls and 13-14 Boys. Flag is a variation of the game. Players neither tackle nor collide with each other in order to advance and stop play. 

Instead, they attempt to grab detachable flags hanging from their opponents’ waists. Supporters say it has all of the benefits of traditional football with less risk of injury. A win-win.

There are more supporters of flag football than ever: according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, more than 1.5 million American children ages 6 to 12 play on their local and school teams. That’s nearly 100,000 more children than those who play tackle football. 

The conversations around the pros (read: reduced risk of injury) of this variation on of the sport are multiplying exponentially—and the stakes are high. Even when it’s not Pro Bowl week football is the most popular sport to watch in America, and while there are concerns about football’s popularity dropping, more than half of us identify as fans of the NFL, college football, or both. 


Playing It Safe

Most parents are very committed to protecting their children—bicycle helmets, child car seats, and smoking bans all exist because of this drive. At the same time many of us have accepted that football exposes players to risk for serious injury. This fact makes it difficult for parents to feel good about balancing the advantages of the sport–learning important life lessons involving teamwork and dedication– against the risk for consequences–injuries with life-long impact. The possibility of injury to a developing brain is causing more and more parents to think twice about whether or not to let their kids play tackle football, and those who do can feel tremendous angst about their decision.

As more evidence about the threat of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, makes its way into public, sports-focused discourse, it casts a lengthening shadow over the game. It’s especially difficult to condone the risk to young children with their developing–and particularly vulnerable–brains. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the only known risk factor for CTE is repetitive head impacts like those experienced in many contact sports, including football. A recent study shows that the risk of CTE increases by 30 percent for every year of tackle football played.

The good news is that this greater awareness of the risks has translated into increased safety protocols and today kids’ football has never been safer. Pop Warner, the biggest youth football league in the country, has taken safety steps like reducing contact to 25 percent of practice time, eliminating kickoffs for their youngest divisions, and requiring that any player who suffers a suspected head injury receive medical clearance from a concussion specialist before returning to play. 

At the same time, groups like the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, are pushing for parents to delay signing up their kids play tackle football until they are at least 14 years old. 

These organizations assert that children's growing bodies just aren't built to handle being tackled, and that children who receive brain injuries before the age of 12 recover more slowly. Both groups recommend flag football instead of tackle football, so parents can still give their kids the opportunity to be a player who makes an impact without taking the physical impact associated with being tackled. 

Advocates for the delay argue that flag is a safer alternative, reducing the risk of brain and other injuries that provides children the opportunity to learn fundamental physical skills while enjoying the social benefits of being part of a football team. 


Drew Brees, To the Point: Flag Football's a Path To Success

The shift to flag football has some high-profile supporters including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees, the most productive passer in NFL history, didn’t play contact football until his freshman year of high school. He credits flag football with laying the foundation for the skills that helped make him a Super Bowl champion. He feels so strongly about flag football that he co-founded Football 'N' America, a non-contact youth co-ed flag football league for children in grades K-10.

“It’s every parent’s decision if, and when, they want their kids to play tackle,” Brees told The New York Times. “We are armed with more information than ever before, and there is more coming every day. Flag is where I developed my love and passion for the game. Maybe some will pursue tackle. If they don’t, I hope they had a great time playing flag and appreciate the game.”

Of all the things that sports parents should focus on, none is greater than the quality and knowledge of the coach that will be working with their kids. Safety concerns and a technical knowledge of the sport are important skills for all coaches to have, but it will be their understanding of the physical, emotional and social stage of development of the children they coach that determines the organizational structure of practices, teaching style, and the expectations the coach will have towards your kids.

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Topics: coaches, parents, youth sports, sports parents, flag football, football, safety

Garland Allen

Written by Garland Allen

Garland Allen is an educator who served as Athletic Director, coach of Basketball, Football and Track & Field, for more than 35 years in public education. Garland spent more than 20 years as a Director of Athletics in Greenwich, CT and Ridgewood, NJ. He also spent eight years as the Director of Wellness for the Ridgewood Public School District. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for the NYU School of Professional Studies Sports and Society program, where he is actively engaged in research and programming on issues related to youth sports.