Flag football’s popularity surges amid increasing concerns about brain injuries

The National Desk

February 8, 2024

Flag football’s popularity is growing. And brain injury concerns might be the key to driving flag football’s continued growth.

Figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations show over a million teenagers play 11-player tackle football. That’s 47 times higher than flag football participation at the high school level.

But participation rates between the two types of football are moving in the opposite direction.

While about 55,000 fewer high schoolers are playing tackle football now than they were a decade ago, high school participation in flag football has nearly tripled.

And the NFL, which advocates for youth flag football participation, says nearly 40% more 6-to-12-year-olds are playing flag football than they were in 2015.

Flag football will even be part of the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Josh Woods, a sociology professor at West Virginia University who examined the growth potential of flag football, wrote that its future “may hinge on the public debate over tackle football’s safety.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that youth tackle football players ages 6 to 14 sustained 15 times more head impacts than flag football players. Youth tackle football players took a median of 378 head impacts during the season, the CDC said.

And there are concerns that those hits from their youth will add up to problems in their future.

Dr. Ann McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center, previously told The National Desk that research shows a person doubles their risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy for every 2.6 years of football at any level, including high school.

“CTE remains a problem,” she said. “It’s a problem not just for professional athletes, but it remains a problem for amateur athletes playing some of these collision and contact sports.”

And players don’t have to suffer massive hits or concussions to develop CTE, she said. Those repetitive, “garden variety” hits to the head can cause damage, McKee said.

David Kracke, an attorney and Oregon’s Brain Injury Advocate Coordinator, said Thursday that the science can’t yet conclusively say the hits a teenager piles up while playing football in high school will come home to roost as cognitive problems as an adult.

“However, I can say that the evidence is certainly going in that direction,” said Kracke, who is with the Center on Brain Injury Research & Training at the University of Oregon. “New science, new studies are emerging all the time.”

Flag football, which is not risk-free, is much safer, he said.

And it “checks all of those boxes” for the benefits of full-contact football, such as exercise and lessons in teamwork.

There’s debate over the age at which children should begin playing full-contact football, he said.

He said he believes that children under 12 are best off to avoid tackle football, especially with their brains in “such rapid development” during that period.

But some folks also say there’s value in starting children on contact football around the age of 12 or 13 so they can learn tackling techniques before being thrown into the deep end against bigger, stronger high school players.

The key, he said, is taking steps to reduce the number of lifetime head impacts a young person sustains.

“This is just something as a society that we should really understand that … 99.99999% of our high school athletes are going to go pro in something other than sports,” Kracke said. “And in order to do so, they are going to need as much cognitive ability as possible to achieve excellence in that field, whether it be education, engineering, medicine, journalism, attorney, you name it.”

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