SIGN UP for our Digital Editions and E-Newsletters
SIGN UP

Search form

Is Flag the Future?

By Dennis Read

There is little doubt that football is at a crossroads. Justified or not, a growing number of people feel that the risk and ramifications of serious injuries, especially concussions, exceed the benefit. The evidence ranges from proposed laws that would outlaw tackle football for certain ages to a drop in participation rates.

In response, some leaders are looking for new solutions. One avenue being explored is replacing tackle football with padded flag football for younger players. In September, the Aspen Institute, an international think tank for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas, delved into the concept, producing a 27-page report titled, “What if … Flag Football Becomes the Standard Way of Playing Football Until High School?”

The analysis was produced by the group’s Sports & Society Program and looked at all sides of the issue. It points out that in 2017, participation in flag football programs for ages 6-12 (988,260) exceeded that of tackle programs (871,465), according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The report concludes that “children, the game and communities are likely to benefit if flag football becomes the standard way of playing before high school, with modifications.”

MAKING THE CASE

The state of Vermont is one step ahead. Beginning this fall, schools in the state were prohibited from offering tackle football before the high school level. Instead, younger players are limited to padded flag football on school-sponsored teams.

“This is not the flag football you see in phys ed classes,” says Bob Hingston, Executive Secretary for the Vermont Interscholastic Football League (VIFL), which operates the sport for the Vermont Principals Association (VPA), the state athletic association. “The players wear full equipment and helmets and the line play is exactly the same as in full tackle football. The only difference is that the ball carrier is not taken down to the ground—the play ends when the defense removes a flag from his waist.”

The idea is to introduce the sport in a manner that removes the tough tackling that is keeping some players away, especially those who have yet to mature physically in middle school. “When I ask kids who are six-feet tall during their junior or senior year why they aren’t playing football, they tell me they were small in middle school and didn’t want to get crushed all the time by the bigger players,” Hingston says. “So they chose soccer or no sports at all. Then they have a growth spurt, but it’s too late to get them back into football.

“We expect that those kids, and more, will be attracted to padded flag football,” he continues. “Then they will stay with football all through high school instead of playing another sport.”

The Aspen Institute’s report cited additional advantages to replacing tackle football with flag football in pre-high school programs. While noting that it’s difficult to quantify the brain injury risk posed by tackle football, it cites numerous studies detailing why many medical professionals feel younger children are especially vulnerable to concussion. Their data includes a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report stating that brain injuries can disrupt children’s “developmental trajectory” and cause changes in “health, thinking, and behavior that affect learning, self-regulation, and social participation,” all important in becoming productive adults. The CDC also says early concussions can negatively affect a child’s future ability to learn and perform in school.

The Aspen report goes on to list famous NFL players who did not play tackle football until high school, including Tom Brady, Jerry Rice, Anthony Munoz, Warren Sapp, Michael Strahan, and Lawrence Taylor. “There’s no evidence to suggest youth tackle participation is a necessary precondition for high school, college and professional success, nor any showing that exposure to tackle football prior to high school reduces the risk of injury,” the report says.

“As such, we project that making flag the standard way of playing football until high school ultimately will benefit an institution many stakeholders care to preserve and enhance,” the report continues. “Safety-conscious parents and children will be more likely to participate in youth flag, expanding the pool of potential high school players. High school players will enter tackle football with less prior exposure to collisions and head injuries that could sideline them permanently, given that each concussion makes an athlete more susceptible to additional concussions.”

Also examined by the Aspen Institute was a move made by USA Hockey a few years ago that increased the minimum age for checking from 11 to 13. Coaches are still instructed to teach players how to properly deliver and receive body checks in the 11 and 12 year old age group during controlled practice sessions, but checking is no longer allowed during games. The Aspen report suggests the same could be done in padded flag football programs. (Schools in Vermont are allowed, but not required, to teach full contact tackling during middle school football practices.)

“If the hockey model were to be followed, football players would learn proper tackling techniques in controlled practice settings in the year or two leading up to the age at which tackling is introduced in games, allowing for a safer introduction to such activity,” the report says.

NOT ENOUGH EVIDENCE?

While arguments for padded flag football may be compelling, it is far from being embraced. Hingston says many coaches in his state were skeptical about the change and that some youth football associations in Vermont, which aren’t governed by the VPA, continue to offer tackle football for middle school age players. These groups’ main concern is that players won’t be prepared for tackle football in high school if they haven’t had experience with it at a younger age.

The Aspen Institute quoted similar thoughts from Mike Mach, Assistant Coach at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi, Mich. “Flag is a good alternative for youth prior to middle school—it is a good vehicle for teaching fundamental skills and developing a love for the game,” he said. “I believe that to forbid contact football until high school is excessive, and it eliminates far too many opportunities to teach safe participation at a young age.”

Part of the problem is a lack of existing data. The report devotes several pages to the science behind the debate, finding no conclusive evidence that participating in tackle football increases brain injury risk. “A definitive casual link between youth football participation and long-term neurological disease has not been established,” the report says. “Most of the research linking football-induced head trauma to acute and chronic brain changes and damage involves former professional and college players; athletes whose football careers did not extend beyond youth and/or high school are not as well-studied. It is unclear exactly how risky youth football participation is, or how many hits to the head over the course of a football career is likely to be too many.”

Further, some worry that eliminating tackle football before high school could turn children away from much-needed physical activity. “I think if we’re going to make dramatic changes to the game, we need dramatic evidence that what we’re doing here has a real public health burden,” says Dr. Andrew Peterson, executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Team Physician for University of Iowa Football. “And I’m not sure that there is a meaningful public health burden of the injuries that occur in youth football.”

IMPLEMENTING CHANGE

When Vermont made the switch to padded flag football below high school, it marked the culmination of a multi-year process. The effort began with a study group that recommended the change. Once the decision had been made, the VPA informed schools 18 months in advance to ensure a smooth transition. During that time, Hingston and his colleagues consulted with people experienced with flag football programs, eventually writing a rule book of their own.

They also traveled around the state explaining the new format, the benefits of it, and why they felt it was needed. “You have to be a salesman when you’re making a change like this,” Hingston says. “We knew we would get some pushback. You have to do your homework so you’re not just throwing things against a wall to see what sticks. You have to show others why it’s a good idea.”

One of their sources in developing the plan was Middlebury, Vt., where middle schoolers have been limited to flag football through a recreational league since the 1970s. Middlebury High School has won 10 state championships and reached more state title games (21) than any other team in the state, despite being one of the smallest schools in its division.

“It’s been a lot easier to get coaches on board with the idea of padded flag football because they’ve seen what kind of teams Middlebury has. It lends a lot of credibility to the idea,” says Hingston, who also points to the example set by Dartmouth College, which made headlines when it eliminated tackling during practices. “It’s hard to say you can’t learn to tackle well if you don’t play tackle football before high school when Middlebury players have been doing so for years.”

Gaining the support of Vermont’s coaches has been key to getting players to accept the change. “The kids will pretty much believe what the adults tell them,” Hingston says. “So if a coach introduces this by telling them it’s something that’s going to help make their program better, they’re going to buy into that. On the other hand, if a coach starts out by saying, ‘We don’t want to do this, but the VPA is making us,’ that negativity is going to rub off on the kids.”

Another group that needs to be included in the process is officials. Hingston says they were a part of the initial discussions and study group and provided input into the rule book. Even so, one of the things the VPA/VIFL plans to evaluate after the inaugural season is changes to the rules.

“We’ll probably consider a weight limit to ball carriers, which we didn’t do this season,” Hingston says. “We’ll also look at how much contact is allowed when trying to down a ball carrier. Right now we have some kids who come from tackle football and there’s some thought we might need to be a little more stringent about what they can do when getting the flag. This might also help standardize calls from officials, who are in their first year of trying to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. But overall, we’re looking at small tweaks to our rules, not major overhauls.”

LOOKING AHEAD

At this point, USA Football isn’t endorsing tackle or flag football, indicating that both are good options. Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck says its board will continue to evaluate its stance as more medical information on football’s risks becomes available.

In the meantime, smaller organizations are developing their own flag programs. One that is growing rapidly is Football ‘N’ America, a non-contact flag football co-ed league for kids from kindergarten through eighth grade, started by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (another NFL player who did not play tackle football until high school). It is active in five states, including football hotbeds like Louisiana and Ohio.

Ultimately, the test of whether flag football should replace tackle may simply be time. “I think padded flag football will prove its worth,” Hingston says. “I hope and expect that down the road we’ll be hearing from parents that their son probably wouldn’t have played tackle football as a seventh grader, but he played flag football and loved it, and now he’s finishing up after four years of tackle football.

“Some people felt we were going to ruin the sport, and I would ask them why they thought we would want to do that,” he continues. “I played and coached football, and I want it to thrive. But football is under duress in a lot of areas. Those of us who love the sport have to evolve or we will be in big trouble.”  

Dennis Read is former Associate Editor at Athletic Management and Coaching Management.

 

THE PANEL

The genesis of the Aspen Institute report on flag football was a panel discussion held in January. Those participating included:

  • Dr. Robert Cantu, Co-Founder of the CTE Center at Boston University
  • Scott Hallenbeck, Executive Director, USA Football
  • Chris Borland and Domonique Foxworth, former NFL players
  • Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth College Head Football Coach
  • Jennifer Brown-Lerner, Policy Manager for the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, and mother of a grade-school boy who plays football
  • Tom Green, Eleanor Roosevelt High School (Md.) Head Football Coach
  • Dr. Andrew Peterson, representing the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Following the discussion, surveys and research were conducted over a six-month period, which resulted in the final paper. Those surveyed included parents, high school and youth coaches, athletic trainers, medical professionals, and others.

 

FOUR-POINT STANCE

As part of its report, “What if … Flag Football Becomes the Standard Way of Playing Football Until High School?” the Aspen Institute makes four specific recommendations:

  • USA Football, Pop Warner, and all other youth football organizations should shift to a standard of flag football before age 14.
  • Those same organizations should begin to teach fundamental blocking, tackling, and hitting skills in practice at age 12 to prepare interested athletes for high school football, and they should do so in a controlled, safe-as-possible manner that does not involve player-to-player and helmet-to-helmet hitting and contact, akin to what the Dartmouth football team does in its practices.
  • High school and college football programs should minimize non-game tackling and player collisions by adopting Dartmouth-style instruction and practice standards.
  • The football industry and other relevant stakeholders—including high schools and colleges—should expand their flag football offerings so that individuals can continue to participate in the sport without having to transition to tackle.

The full report can be viewed by entering “flag football” into the search box at: aspeninstitute.org.

 

We’ll send ALL OF YOUR COACHES a weekly email newsletter containing instruction, advice and valuable information on:
  • PROPER COMMUNICATION: With your athletes, parents, administrators and the coaches
  • SUCCESSFUL OPERATIONS: Pre-Season, In-Season, Off-Season
  • LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUES: Creating the proper environment for teaching athletes life skills
  • RISK MANAGEMENT: Keeping your athletes safe at practices, during games, off-eason training, etc.
  • ATHLETE PERFORMANCE: Tips in areas of Conditioning, Nutrition, Mental Training, etc., that help your athletes perform at their best and improve their overall wellness
  • PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Ways to help your coaches be the best they can be
SUBSCRIBE NOW