By Dionne Koller
Flag football has had a unique position in cultural discussions about youth sports. The game for both boys and girls has been at the crossroads of debates ranging from gender equity to football safety. While flag football cannot fully solve our Title IX or football concussion problems, the game does provide a useful lens for considering the types of solutions that can increase access to and interest in sports for all children.
When Florida became the first state to sanction girls varsity flag football in 2003, the issue was flag football’s role in advancing gender equity in sports as defined by Title IX, the law prohibiting discrimination in educational programs (including school-based sports) on the basis of sex. Because of the popularity of tackle football and other boys sports in Florida, high schools were not meeting Title IX’s mandate to provide equitable participation opportunities for girls. Girls flag football was viewed as a way for schools to comply with Title IX by adding additional participation opportunities. Today, in addition to Florida, Nevada and Alaska high schools sanctioning girls flag football, the sport has grown to over 11,000 participants with at least 420 schools sponsoring teams, according to 2017-18 participation data by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
The State of Play: Baltimore report showed that flag football is one of the 10 most popular sports played by sixth to 12th graders. In the Project Play: Baltimore study area, 23 percent of sixth- to eighth-graders play tackle football and 15 percent play flag football. Seventeen percent play tackle football and 3 percent play flag football in ninth to 12th grades.
From a Title IX perspective, however, the addition of flag football opportunities for girls raises concerns. The NCAA does not recognize the sport, so there are no scholarship opportunities for girls who want to play in college (though flag football thrives on college campuses as an intramural activity). Critics point out that adding a relatively inexpensive activity such as flag football in high school sports, with no varsity college opportunities, instead of a sport such as lacrosse or even beach volleyball (both of which are recognized NCAA sports) is an attempt to achieve Title IX compliance on the cheap. Some argue that with no college scholarships or varsity college play, girls flag football denies girls the essence of a sport experience, which is striving for the next level.
Most recently, flag football has surfaced again as part of the discussion over the future of tackle football. According to the NFHS, in Maryland, high school football participation declined 16 percent between 2010 and 2017 – decreasing each year during that period. Participation hasn’t increased since 2010, when numbers totaled 184 schools with 15,464 participants – up from 2009, which had 183 schools with 15,396 participants. Flag football has been touted as a safer alternative pipeline to the tackle game given concerns about concussions and growing research on the dangers of repeated head trauma, especially for children. The National Football League and USA Football even sponsor a FLAG-in-Schools program aimed at increasing youth physical activity, especially in under-served communities.
In Baltimore, the Joel Gamble Foundation and Coppermine Fieldhouse offers flag football in partnership with NFL and USA Football; other notable flag football providers are Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, Parks & People Foundation, Living Classrooms Foundation, NEWfit Kids, and Volo City Kids Foundation. Estimates are that over 6 million children currently play flag football in the U.S., and the sport is growing. In fact, last year the game reached a significant national milestone: Flag surpassed tackle as the most commonly played version of football for kids ages 6 to 12 (3.3 percent played flag, 2.9 percent tackle), according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Over the past three years, flag football participation is up 38.9 percent, more than any other team sport.
Aside from flag football’s role as a possible Title IX fix or a safer alternative to the tackle game, there are important lessons to be learned from its growing popularity. First is that flag football is far less expensive than tackle football and many other sports with heavy equipment, coaching, and insurance costs. These costs are barriers for schools and parents and serve to keep kids on the sidelines. The growth of flag football despite its relatively modest cost shows that kids can be active and engaged with a game that anyone with access to a grassy field can play.
Second is that flag football provides an opportunity for inclusiveness that many other sports do not. Girls and boys can safely play the game together, making scheduling and allocation of fields far easier for schools. Children of varying abilities and body types can also play, increasing the possibilities for getting kids into the game who previously were not active.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that kids say flag football is simply fun. An essential part of the Project Play initiative is including children’s voices in the design and implementation of sports programs — something that is too often lacking in the youth sports industry today. Both girls and boys report that they enjoy flag football, and significantly, the lack of college scholarships isn’t always a dead end, but instead an opportunity to play a sport just for the fun of it. Whether flag football ultimately will solve our Title IX or concussion problems, it’s this lesson that could be its most significant contribution to cultural discussions over the future of youth sports.
Dionne Koller is director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore. She serves on the advisory group for Project Play: Baltimore, a multiyear initiative by the Aspen Institute designed to help city stakeholders grow the quantity and quality of sport options available to local Baltimore youth. It is the first model community initiative organized by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Supported by Under Armour, Project Play: Baltimore is a bold experiment designed to serve and inspire Baltimore communities.