The Groundswell of Growth in Flag Football | Sports Destination Management

The Groundswell of Growth in Flag Football

Oct 03, 2018 | By: Michael Popke

As difficult as it might seem to believe today, playing tackle football before high school was uncommon until at least the 1950s. But a half-century later, the National Football League was spending more than $100 million promoting youth tackle football.


Those startling facts are just two of the nuggets in a white paper recently published by The Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. The 27-page reportposes this question: “What if flag football becomes the standard way of playing football until high school?” 

The authors set out to answer that question from five different angles:

1. Public health: Would delaying tackle football until high school make players safer?

2. Youth participation: Would flag football bring more children into the sport — or drive them away?

3. Friday night lights: What impact, if any, might there be on high school football?

4. The football industry: What would this mean for the NFL and college football, in terms of talent development, fan cultivation and long-term bottom line?

5. Civic life: How would a shift to flag impact the values promoted through the sport?

Their conclusion?“Children, the game and communities are likely to benefit if flag football becomes the standard way of playing before high school, with modifications,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, adding that a key modification would be ensuring that “proper tackling technique is taught in in practice settings, and in a controlled manner, in the age group leading into it.”

Other changes the institute recommends include the following:

  • USA Football, Pop Warner and all other youth football organizations shift to a standard of flag football before age 14.

  • Those same organizations begin to teach fundamental blocking, tackling and hitting skills in practice at age 12 — the better to prepare interested athletes for high school football — and do so in a controlled, safe-as-possible manner that does not involve player-to-player and helmet-to-helmet hitting and contact.

  • High school and college football programs also minimize non-game tackling and player collisions.

  • The football industry and other relevant stakeholders — including high schools and colleges — expand their flag football offerings; that way, players can continue to participate in the sport without having to transition to tackle.

To be effective, the report stresses, “these recommendations need full, interlocking support from both the football and medical communities.”

“We think a lot of that is based on very one-sided, very narrow research without any control group,” Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner youth football, told CBS Sports. “There is no evidence that starting tackle football at any given age causes any particular problems.”

However, as The Wall Street Journalpoints out, “a 2017 Boston University study linked beginning tackle football before age 12 with increased risk of depression, cognitive impairment and behavior problems over time.”

According to The Aspen Institute’s website: “Last year, in a milestone development that flew beneath the radar of national media, flag football surpassed tackle football as the most commonly played form of the game among children ages 6 to 12, according to annual survey data by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. [In early September], the LA84 Foundation, a major grant-maker to youth sports programs in Southern California, announced that it would no longer fund programs that offer tackle football before age 14.”

This past summer, the NFL Network even broadcast 11 live American Flag Football League gamesand distributed highlights from the AFFL’s 2018 U.S. Open of Football Tournament. The 132-team, single-elimination tournament pitted teams of elite former professionals (including quarterback Michael Vick)against the winner of an open 128-team national bracket.

“We are quite possibly watching the future of pro football,” tweetedNew Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson during one of the games.

In 2017, Saints quarterback Drew Brees started a mixed-gender flag football league for kids. “I think that this has the opportunity to really save the game of football, honestly,” he told ESPN.comat the time.


The authors of The Aspen Institute white paper see flag football not only as a safer way to play the game but also as a means to creating better human beings: “We suspect that flag football could prepare children for the world ahead no less readily than tackle football and other sports, especially if delivered by coaches trained to work with youth. In doing so, we suspect the values that we most hope get transmitted via football — from grit to self-sacrifice — will be upheld and elevated. Flag football for kids may even open new vistas, such as enhanced respect among boys for girls that comes with mixed- gender play.”

About the Author