The Future of Football Has Flags

The Future of Football Has Flags

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Courtesy of the New York Times

Robin Schultz knows how important football is in this Alabama city. He was going to games long before Hoover became famous (or perhaps infamous) for its devotion to the sport, as chronicled in an MTV reality show, “Two-a-Days,” that focused on the nationally ranked Hoover High School Bucs.

But when youth coaches asked about getting his grandson Jackson, 9, into football pads and the Bucs’ pipeline, Schultz could not square his grandson’s talent and love for the game with the bone-jarring hits that may cause concussions or lead to neurocognitive problems later in life.

“Not happening,” he told them.

Yet Schultz, like many adults, was not quite ready to give up football altogether. Instead, these parents and caregivers have let their children experience the game but avoid the bulk of its contact by playing flag football. The shift, through thriving leagues in Hoover and dozens of other cities and towns, has helped flag football become the fastest-growing team sport in the United States.

Over the past three years, the number of 6-to-12-year-olds playing flag football has increased by 38 percent, to more than 1.5 million. That is nearly 100,000 more than those who currently play tackle football, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which has analyzed youth athletic trends for 40 years.

The shift has some high-profile supporters. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a Super Bowl champion and the most prolific passer in N.F.L. history, did not put on pads for the first time until high school, and he credits flag football with laying the foundation for the skills that almost certainly will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Brees now coaches his young sons’ teams in a flag football league he co-founded, Football N America, that he hopes will help keep the sport he loves relevant.

“Every parent looks at football now and has reservations,” said Brees, now in his 18th N.F.L. season. “I know I do. If parents feel like the only option is tackle, then there’s a danger that a whole generation of kids may never be introduced to the game.”

That is a danger the N.F.L. is taking seriously. After efforts to react to increasing public concern about injuries, ranging from teaching “safe tackling” to supporting hybrid 7-on-7 youth games, the league has been cultivating flag football as a way to stem a trend of declining participation in the tackle version of the sport, and to keep young athletes — and their families — from abandoning football entirely.

The N.F.L. recently pledged to give annual grants to 400 Boys & Girls Clubs for flag football programs to reach 100,000 players ages 6 to 18. It also used its media megaphone to try to give flag football a higher profile: Over the summer, the league-owned N.F.L. Network broadcast 11 games of a new national flag football tournament.

Few predict flag football will replace tackle football at the high school and college level anytime soon, but the game has taken hold in some of the sport’s most traditional strongholds. In Chicago, new leagues have siphoned scores of players from long-established tackle programs, while in Alabama, Hoover’s youth flag football league has nearly tripled in size over the past five years, to 91 teams.

“Football is part of our fabric,” said Jeff Lewis, a founder of the new American Flag Football League, whose games were broadcast by the N.F.L. Network and covered on the league website last summer. The tournament, the first U.S. Open of Football, saw 128 amateur teams and four “pro” squads compete this summer.

“Flag really is the version of the game that we all play on Thanksgiving morning,” Lewis said. “It’s what we play in our backyard.”

Still, concern about injuries, particularly those to the brain, is part of flag football’s growing appeal. Beyond a steady stream of former high school, college and N.F.L. players being found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease known as C.T.E., several recent incidents demonstrated the dangers that younger players still face in tackle football. Last month, head injuries suffered during games resulted in the death of a high school player in Georgia and the hospitalization of a college player in Tennessee. Two weeks ago, a Mississippi player died after breaking his neck while making a tackle.

A 2016 UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion Research survey found that 78 percent of American adults did not think it was appropriate for children to participate in tackle football before age 14. Last month, the LA84 Foundation, which has given millions in grants to youth sports programs in Southern California, announced that it would no longer finance tackle football programs for children under 14.

In many cases, in fact, the rush to flag football has been led by so-called “football people.”

This fall, Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit after-school program, added flag football for fifth- and sixth-grade girls and boys to complement an existing tackle program. The new program was made possible by a $15,000 donation from the Chicago Bears, who already help pay for a tackle program for junior high school boys.

“There’s people that don’t want to play soccer,” said Mike Barry, a college and N.F.L. coach for 40 years who runs the programs. “Some kids are football people. I want to give them an avenue to be at their schools so they can play.”

In Wilmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago and long a bastion of tackle football, Peter Lee, a former quarterback at Wisconsin and Yale, started a flag football team and agreed to coach it. His son Danny is a fifth grader, and Lee said that he and his wife, a nurse, could not ignore the mounting research linking those who played tackle football as children with symptoms of brain disease, like memory loss and mood swings, as they aged.

“I just couldn’t rationalize it,” Lee said of letting Danny play tackle football at a young age.

Demand was so strong for places in the league that Lee was able to fill a second team; among the players who signed up was Connor Drew, whose grandfather, Dave Wannstedt, is the former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach. Wannstedt told his daughter Keri Drew that Connor would be better off playing flag football.

“My dad didn’t really start tackle until high school, so his opinion has been to wait until even more of the science comes out,” Keri Drew said. “The unknown is what’s scary.”

In Hoover, the Bucs are still the most important team in town, and the looming presence of the University of Alabama — an hour’s drive away — hovers over the city’s booming flag football league; recently, the league moved its game days to Tuesday evenings from Saturdays to avoid conflicts with Nick Saban’s top-ranked Crimson Tide.

That makes for long, busy evenings for Brent Solberg, who runs the flag football program for Hoover’s parks and recreation department, which crowns champions in 11 youth divisions. Solberg recently helped organize a tournament for more than 60 teams, some from as far away as Texas and Florida.

“It’s really cut into tackle football here,” Solberg said. “Our tackle league has lost about 180 to 200 kids in the last two years. I have a lot of ex-college players among my dads and coaches, and they know the wear and tear and grind that goes into playing tackle. They say this is more fun for their kids.”

While flag football pitches itself as a safer alternative, some parents still steer their children away from football entirely. Jim Schwantz, a former N.F.L. player who is now the mayor of Palatine, Ill., discovered this after he started a recreational flag football league.

“I found that there was a group of parents, they don’t even want to introduce their kids to flag, period, because they’ll enjoy the game and then ask to play tackle,” Schwantz said.

In New Orleans on autumn Fridays, Brees coaches each of his three boys’ flag football teams in the league he co-founded. It is the night that he can share the sport that has made him wealthy and famous with the boys — Baylen, 9, Bowen, 8 and Callen, 6 — without worrying about the harm the game might do to their futures.

Brees is bracing for what he acknowledges will be a difficult discussion with his wife, Brittany, and his boys if they ask to play tackle. “They are at the age where they know what Dad does,” he said.

In the meantime, Brees hopes Football N America, now in its second year and with leagues in 11 cities, can delay that conversation a while longer and perhaps lead him, and other parents, to a more informed decision.

“It’s every parent’s decision if, and when, they want their kids to play tackle,” Brees said. “We are armed with more information than ever before, and there is more coming every day. Flag is where I developed my love and passion for the game. Maybe some will pursue tackle. If they don’t, I hope they had a great time playing flag and appreciate the game.”


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