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Girls’ Flag Football Growth Gets Cheers, Takes Hits

12 Feb, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic

In recent years, many schools have attempted to bolster girls’ athletics by adding flag football to their athletics program line-up. Public schools in New York City and well as Washington, DC, recently added flag football as a varsity sport for girls. The two municipalities join the State of Florida, where girls’ flag football has been a varsity championship event for the past 10 years. (Alaska also has a championship program, though it’s largely limited to the Anchorage area.) In Florida, flag football currently ranks eighth out of 20 sanctioned girls' sports in terms of number of participants, with 5,538 girls participating.

Gary Pigott, Senior Director of Athletics for Florida's high school governing body (FHSAA), recently told ESPN that flag programs were launched by schools looking to meet Title IX that mandate gender equity, particularly in towns and cities that have active boys’ football programs.

"We were basically reacting to our member schools," said Pigott, who told ESPN that feedback over the past decade on girls’ flag football has been very positive, and in some areas of Florida, interest in the sport has exceeded that of traditional girls’ sports such as field hockey, lacrosse, water polo or badminton . "We wanted to provide girls in another sport an opportunity to play,” he said.

While the sport continues to grow at the high school level, some have criticized it as a feeble attempt to adhere to Title IX. Despite its popularity, it’s still not an NCAA-sanctioned sport and therefore offers no scholarship opportunities to players, which does little to close the opportunity gap between boys and girls in varsity sports.  Until flag football progresses beyond the club and intramural level, this is unlikely to change.

"No one is saying flag football isn't a great sport to play," Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, told ESPN. "But if you're going to add a varsity sport, it is relevant if that sport is going to provide the same opportunities as the boys have. In Washington, D.C., all the varsity sports for boys do offer scholarships at the college level. So, to then add flag football as opposed to a sport, like volleyball or soccer, that does allow girls to get college scholarships is not equitable,” she said.

Supporters have said that scholarship potential shouldn’t be the point – after all, most youth athletes don’t earn scholarships -- and that flag football offers girls great opportunities to have fun and be part of a team.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, told USA Today recently that she disagrees. Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals and a silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, said it’s important that any added girls varsity sports have the chance of a college scholarship.

"Part of it is the pursuit of a scholarship, even though many don't ultimately get scholarships," she said. "The thing that makes sports valuable is having a goal and postponing the short-term. If you want to have fun, you don't train for the Olympics. What purpose would anybody have to swim four hours a day if they didn't have a long-term goal?"

It may be only a matter of time and growing interest. The NCAA has said that while it has received inquiries about adding flag football as a sanctioned sport, it has received no formal requests.

"To date, there has not been a proposal submitted for flag football to become an emerging sport," said NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent.

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