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Volume 21 No. 1
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Amid concussion concerns, flag football numbers grow

Flag football participation has grown 29 percent since 2014 as parents steer away from tackle.
GETTY IMAGES
When his counterparts from other states hear that he is from Vermont, which in the next year will migrate most of its middle school football programs from traditional football to flag football, Bob Johnson typically gets the same progression of questions.

“They look at you and they say, ‘What does that mean?’” said Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, which oversees high school sports in the state. “Is it full contact? Is it padded? What is it?”

The direct answer is that it’s a hybrid: A variation of football that has players in full pads, wearing helmets, playing the game similarly to the way they would have if Vermont had not switched to flag — right up until the point at which defenders reach the ball carrier. At that point, there is no tackling. Instead, they pull flags that are attached to the players’ waists.

VPA-member middle schools will switch to padded flag at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels beginning next season. Sixth-grade teams would have been required to move last season, but those schools that field sixth-grade teams run them independently of the VPA, often in conjunction with municipal recreation programs. About 40 percent of the state’s seventh- and eight-grade programs are affiliated with the VPA.

“I’m not going to tell you that this has been supported 100 percent, because it hasn’t,” said Johnson, who pointed to municipal rec programs as the most vocal opponents. “We have football coaches who are the real traditionalists, and from them there has been some resistance to it. But the people that I would consider the up-and-coming coaches, who are very active and involved and see what’s going on and are talking to parents — they understand. They realize that they have to do something to address the issues of football that have these parents concerned, or potentially they’re not going to have a sport.”

Data reported to the National Federation of State High School Associations shows high school football participation in Vermont falling 15 percent during the last five years and down 48 percent over the last 10. The survey indicated that one in three schools has dropped the sport in the last decade.

Because only about two-thirds of Vermont schools have responded to the NFHS’s annual survey in recent years, it is difficult to precisely quantify the decline in the state, Johnson said. But there is no doubt that there has been one.

Population declines and budget crunches have been factors, he said. But he knows many have been driven away by emerging research on concussions and their impact on development.

A Boston University study released in September found a link between participation in football before age 12 and increased risks of behavioral problems and clinical depression later in life. The study, which examined the life experiences of 103 former college players, 68 former NFL players and 43 former high school players, found similar outcomes regardless of how long they competed or how often they reported concussions. Variances came based mostly on the age at which they began organized play.

Flag football participation is growing as totals for some popular youth sports show declines.
Photo by: NFL FLAG
Those skeptical of the survey pointed to the fact that those surveyed all played youth football decades before the implementation of coaches education programs that encourage heads-up tackling and closer monitoring for possible head injuries.

But the steady drumbeat of similar studies clearly has resonated with parents. Earlier this year, a Harris poll of more than 1,000 U.S. parents found that nearly half would keep their children from playing a sport because of concussion concerns. Of the one-third who said their decisions depended on the sport, only 18 percent would allow football. About two-thirds of those parents said they’d let their children play organized basketball or baseball.

“We’ve understood for a while now that football was under attack, and we probably felt it first and maybe a little harder than some because we don’t have as many schools and they tend to be smaller,” Johnson said. “We realize we have to do all we can to make the game safer. … And when we looked at the middle schools, we decided to take that extra step to remove the sort of contact that has [parents] concerned.”

While stories of participation decline continue to emerge across the country, the most reliable national tracking data shows that tackle football numbers have rebounded slightly, but steadily, in the last three years while baseball, basketball and soccer have fallen (see chart). Still, that rebound in tackle football pales in comparison to the recent growth of flag, which increased 15.6 percent in 2016 and was up 29 percent since 2014.

The NFL Flag program, operated by USA Football, includes both school and recreational components. The in-school program targets underserved communities, providing footballs, flag belts, kicking tees and a suggested PE curriculum to 4,700 elementary and middle schools. The rec program is a template through which communities can set up flag leagues in which players ages 5-17 wear NFL team-branded, reversible jerseys. NFL Flag hosts eight regional tournaments that then feed into a national tournament held during Super Bowl or Pro Bowl week, with additional teams qualifying through at-large bids awarded by each NFL team.

The lesson of youth sports in recent years has been that as sports become more popular, they spawn a culture of traveling families attracted by events that bill themselves as national championships, even though all it typically takes to qualify is a signed check. The U.S. Flag and Touch Football League has sanctioned tournaments for the last 30 years, largely for adult weekend warriors. When it convenes its national championship in Sarasota, Fla., in January, it will include five youth divisions. Last year’s event, which also was held in Florida, drew its field mostly from Florida, but also had teams travel from Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina.

“I remember when I started here, coming up with the list of field sports we’d go after, flag wasn’t on it,” said Shelby Connett, director of sports for the Sarasota County Sports Commission, who said the USFTL event is expected to bring in about 15,000 visitors. “But now, we’ve got this very large event coming in and it’s to the extent that we’ll definitely look at hosting other events in the future. People are talking about flag football. Based on what we’re seeing, it’s only going to grow.”