Participation numbers may be down in high school football, but that doesn’t mean the entire sport is on its deathbed.
The number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing flag football jumped by nearly 40 percent over the past three years to more than 1.5 million, according to The New York Times. That is almost 100,000 more than the number of players currently on tackle football teams.
No wonder the NFL — no doubt worried that decreasing participation at the youth level will impact its bottom line over time — recently partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to increase flag football participation across the country. The plan calls for introducing more than 100,000 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18 to the game’s fundamentals and the NFL Flag community.
According to a statement issued by the NFL, the league will provide annual grants to 400 Boys & Girls Clubs locations for equipment, field maintenance support, coaches and officials training, and other materials.
“Flag football provides kids of all ages an entry point into the game and a venue to learn valuable life skills and lessons that will translate well beyond the football field,” said Natara Holloway, the NFL’s vice president of youth and high school football.
Youth sports organizers agree.
“I have a mission that [flag football] is going to impact tackle football in a positive way and increase tackle football at an older age group,” Josh Wolfgram, director of the Portland Youth Football flag program in Maine told the Portland Press Herald. “I’m using flag football as a vehicle for kids and parents who may not feel comfortable playing at a younger age.”
More than 500 players from eight municipalities participated this fall in an NFL Flag league run by Wolfgram and another area resident.
The NFL Flag program, which has more than 400,000 players nationally, adheres to a different set of rules: Every offensive player is eligible to handle the ball in 5-on-5 games, there are no linemen (with the exception of a center, who snaps the ball), there is no blocking and intentional contact is not allowed anywhere on the field.
“Few predict flag football will replace tackle football at the high school and college level anytime soon, but the game has taken hold in some of the sport’s most traditional strongholds,” The New York Times reports. “In Chicago, new leagues have siphoned scores of players from long-established tackle programs, while in Alabama, Hoover’s youth flag football league has nearly tripled in size over the past five years, to 91 teams.”
“Football is part of our fabric,” Jeff Lewis, a founder of the new American Flag Football League, whose games were broadcast by the NFL Network and covered on the league website last summer, told the Times. “Flag really is the version of the game that we all play on Thanksgiving morning. It’s what we play in our backyard.”
This increased focus on — and seemingly newfound acceptance of — flag football comes as research continues to shed an ominous light on the impacts of playing tackle football at a young age.
A new study at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center indicates even a single season of tackle youth football is enough to disrupt normal development of the brain. And another recent study, this one at Boston University, linked playing tackle football before age 12 to a threefold increase in risk of depression as an adult.
Another reason flag football might be catching on more than in the past has nothing to do with safety. In some cities, it costs parents $100 or more to register their kids for tackle football (not including all the required gear). Flag football is less expansive and requires little more than a mouthguard and cleats.
To read SDM's most recent article on U.S. Flag and Touch Football, click here.