By Ken Reed

Participation rates for flag football are on the rise, and for good reason. A CDC study reports that tackle football athletes, ages 6 to 14, sustained 15 times as many head impacts as flag football players during practices and games, and 23 times high-magnitude head impacts (i.e., hard blows to the head).

According to the Aspen Institute Project Play’s State of Play 2022 report, 322,000 more children ages 6-12 played flag football than tackle football in 2021. Only a decade earlier, in 2011, 251,000 more young people in the 6 to 14 age range played tackle football than those who played flag football.

Parental fears of brain injuries is a key driver of this growing trend.

There are three major ways to decrease the amount of hits to the head in youth tackle football: 1) Strongly police and penalize ANY blows to the head in games, whether they are perceived to be intentional or not; 2) Eliminate full contact hitting in practices during the season and severely restrict preseason full contact sessions; and 3) All schools should offer flag football as a sport option.

These moves aren’t as radical as they may seem on the surface.

Consider Dartmouth College. Every college and high school football program should adopt the Dartmouth policy of eliminating tackling from all practices. Injuries, including concussions, have dropped significantly for Dartmouth since this policy was implemented.

Instead of tackling teammates, Dartmouth players tackle inanimate objects, not people. They use various dummies, including a robotic moving dummy called the “mobile virtual player” in practice.

Dartmouth has been very competitive on the field since the change. They’ve won three Ivy League championships since implementing this policy. Today, the entire Ivy League has followed Dartmouth’s lead by eliminating full-contact practices.

“[Research on limiting contact in practice] all shows that you not only have fewer subconcussive hits, but also concussions,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “It’s not rocket science.”

In the face of research revealing the dangers of repetitive sub-concussive head impact, and declining participation in high school football, the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association has adopted new rules limiting full contact practices. The rules limit full contact drills to 15 minutes per week. Preseason full-contact drills are limited to six hours total.

“I think there are better ways of playing team sports and getting exercise than repeatedly hitting your head,” said Jesse Mez, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University and member of the school’s Alzheimer’s Center and CTE Center. “But given the country’s interest in football and how much everybody loves it, if we are not going to stop playing, then we should reduce the amount of contact as much as we can.”

For sure.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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