Flag on the play: Why flag football is growing across the US
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A twist on the most popular sport in America may have started growing amid concerns about athlete safety and concussions. As it opens doors for girls, nontraditional athletes, and older adults, flag football is also helping to redefine sports.
A modified version of American football, flag football has been gaining popularity not just in Westfield, but across the country. Since 2015, participation by 6-to-12-year-olds has increased 38%, according to NFL Flag. Tackle football among that age group has dropped by 29%.
“In the last 10 years, it’s boomed,” says Russ Crawford, author of “Women’s American Football: Breaking Barriers On and Off the Gridiron.” “Football is the most popular sport in America, and the girls want to play.”
In the United States, traditional tackle football is available to girls, with teams such as Utah Girls Football in Salt Lake. Girls also play the contact version of the sport on boys’ teams. “With the growth of the concussion crisis, flag is a more socially and medically [secure] way for girls to play,” explains Dr. Crawford, a professor of history at Ohio Northern University.
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Typically played with teams of five to eight players, flag football involves advancing the ball down the field by either passing or running. The sport reduces physical contact by replacing tackling with the pulling of flags worn by the players.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in Sports Health in 2021, youth tackle athletes had a median of 378 head impacts per season. Flag football athletes averaged just eight a season.
In addition to being safer than tackle football, flag football is also more accessible to a wider group of people. You don’t need to be huge to play it (agility, speed, and strategy are more important than size and strength), and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment.
“This is something new and it’s a fresh start,” says Ms. Liptack. “It’s so cool to see kids trying something new and loving it and having fun.”
Leveling the playing field
John Dugan Jr., a former police officer, helped create Westfield PAL Flag Football in 1998 for youth who wanted to play but didn’t want to compete in tackle football. Since then, the organization has grown from 67 players to approximately 1,000. Recently, Westfield PAL added a new program for girls.
“We saw a need where more and more girls were playing. To try to level out the playing field for them, we thought we should have this program,” explains Mr. Dugan, president of the Police Athletic League.
Westfield parents Kelly and David Hantman helped launch Westfield PAL Girls Flag Football League. “Our family wanted to open up access to this great sport, so girls can decide if they would like to try it,” explains Ms. Hantman, whose daughter was among the girls who played in the league in 2022. “So far, it’s been a great success!”
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The NFL has partnered with Nike to grow girls’ flag football leagues across the country. Ms. Hantman connected with the New York Jets’ community relations department, which supported the launch of the girls’ league by donating flag belts and Nike cleats. “Additionally, the Jets invited our league to their practice facility last summer for a minicamp, which was an incredible experience for the players and families,” she says.
According to Ms. Hantman, the girls who play range from athletes to dancers to gymnasts. “It’s a sport that attracts every girl because you may have a great arm and be able to play quarterback, be really fast and take a handoff, or be great at defense and pull a flag.”
Opportunities for all
Flag football proponents say the sport can become even more inclusive. Mr. Dugan says Westfield PAL never turns a player away for financial reasons. “We have a scholarship program,” he adds. “We pride ourselves on that.”
In addition, Westfield PAL recently started a special needs program. “Some of the kids who have special needs feel like they can’t compete with mainstream players,” Mr. Dugan explains. “We’ve had minicamps with 20 or more players come out. We plan on having more this year.”
Other flag football advocates have modified the game to open it up to more people. For example, in the International Women’s Flag Football Association, instead of playing five on five, which is the version played by NFL Flag teams, participants play an eight-on-eight version. This opens up the sport more to girls and women who are not traditionally athletic.
Diane Beruldsen, president and founder of the association, believes more skills come into play for the eight-on-eight version of the game. “For five on five, it is more about running and throwing,” she explains. “In our game, if you can’t catch, you can kick or punt. The strategy is very different.”
There’s no age limit: The oldest woman who played at a recent tournament was 72.
Ms. Beruldsen says the association also works to foster female coaches and officials.
“Our goal is to make leaders out of these women, but good, kind, compassionate leaders,” she says. “We need to redefine sports and this concept of winning. We should enjoy practices as much as games, and we should help one another.”