By Ken Reed

Flag football, in general, is very popular. There are more than 20 million participants in 100+ countries.

The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) and the NFL are leading a push to have flag football be part of the Olympics held in Los Angeles in 2028.

The fastest growing segment of flag football is girls 17 and under. In the United States alone, approximately 474,000 girls under 17 played flag last year, up 63% from 2019.

Girls flag football is also a growing sanctioned varsity sport in high schools around the country. Nine states have sanctioned girls flag football as a varsity sport, and several other state high school athletic associations have a pilot flag program for girls. Flag football for females is a growing sport at the college level as well.

“It’s opening up in colleges too,” says Meghan Rietveld, head flag football coach at Eaglecrest High School in Colorado.

“We’ve already gotten contacts from schools that are starting programs and offering scholarships. All the girls are seeing where it could take them and they’re all really excited about it.”

High school athletic associations across the country are amazed at the popularity of girls flag football.

“The interest for girls flag football was through the roof from the very beginning,” said Will DeBoard, Sac-Joaquin California Section assistant commissioner.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a new sport come in and have this type of growth so fast so soon.”

I’m thrilled girls in high school are getting the chance to play flag football at the varsity level. First of all, it’s a fun sport. It requires physical conditioning, which enhances physical health, mental health and academic performance. It teaches great life lessons like teamwork and dealing with adversity. For decades, football has been reserved for males in this country. So, it’s awesome that girls and women can now experience the joys of playing football.

That said, it’s my hope that soon flag football will also be a sanctioned high school varsity sport for boys across the country. Tackle football is obviously a very popular sport in this country. And for some parents and their boys, tackle football will continue to be the version of the sport they prefer. But for many other families, flag football could be an alternative to a sport that has been proven to cause brain injuries, including the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The latest study on CTE has revealed that it’s not just concussions, and not just the number of blows to the head over time that leads to CTE, but the cumulative force of those hits.

Historically, we first thought it was multiple concussions that led to CTE. However, newer research suggested it was a high number of sub-concussive hits to the brain that were the primary cause. Now, we know it’s not just the number of hits to the head but the collective force of those hits over time.

Blows to the head are rare in flag football. A CDC study, reported that youth tackle football athletes ages 6 to 14 sustained 15 times more head impacts than flag football athletes during a practice or game and sustained 23 times more high-magnitude head impacts. Other key findings from the study:

* Youth tackle football athletes experienced a median of 378 head impacts per athlete during the season.

* Flag football athletes experienced a median of 8 eight head impacts per athlete during the season.

Serious joint injuries and broken bones are also rare in flag football.

Flag football should be an alternative form of the sport for boys — and their parents — who want to limit the risk of serious — and potentially, life altering (e.g., CTE) — injuries.

For those tackle football advocates concerned that high schools offering flag football would take away athletes from tackle football, flag football conceivably could be offered during another sports season besides the fall. But if it makes the most sense, considering a variety of factors, to offer flag football for boys as a fall sport option then so be it.

Given what we know about the dangers of tackle football to the human brain, young boys and their parents deserve to have another version of the game available to them in high school.

And who knows, by 2028, it might even be an Olympic sport.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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