Visualize girls high school football. No, really, it’s true. Female athletes compete in high school football games, make spectacular plays, and get the crowd on their feet, screaming. There’s one big difference: no tackling. Girls high school football is the flag variety, and it’s been around for longer than many football fans realize.
In fact, in football hotbed Florida, girls’ flag football has graced gridirons as a championship varsity sport for 16 years now. The only other state where girls’ flag has both varsity status and a state championship is in Florida’s geographic opposite, Alaska.
Despite its relative youth, flag football ranks 8 out of 20 Florida high school girls sports in popularity. Over 5,500 girls played it in Florida in 2015. One might expect a state where football borders on religion, and some high school stadiums hold upwards of 10,000 fans to have girls flag football at a high level.
Florida and Alaska aren’t alone, though. Not only do other football-heavy states like Texas and California have girls flag football, but states from Hawaii to WA DC, and New York now offer girls’ flag football as a varsity sport. In Florida the season culminates in a state championship tournament, as it does in the boys’ variety. In Florida, teams from across the state vie for the title, while in Alaska, it’s mostly relegated to schools in the greater Anchorage area.
Flag Football Playmakers
Just as in boys football, the stars come out to play on the girls’ gridiron, too. Late last year Henderson, NV’s Green Valley High School senior wide receiver Carolina Vaslasquez created a YouTube sensation, with a spectacular Odell Beckam-like, airborne, one handed catch.
Girls Flag Football Scholarships?
One knock on girls’ flag football is the lack of scholarship potential. Detractors say that if a state is to add a varsity sport, it should deliver the same scholarship opportunities as other girls sport. Currently, no colleges play girls flag football at that level. Speaking to USA Today, Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center, said “Certainly in Washington, D.C., all the varsity sports for boys do offer scholarships at the college level. So, to then add flag football as opposed to a sport, like volleyball or soccer, that does allow girls to get college scholarships is not equitable”
According to the annual 2014-2015 THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF STATE HIGH SCHOOL ASSOCIATIONS high school sports participation survey, 11,502 high schools nationwide already offer varsity girls soccer programs, making it the 5th most popular sport, behind track and field, basketball, softball, oh, and volleyball.
Those figures show most schools have already added volleyball and soccer, indicating Ms. Chaudhry may be missing the point. The girls want to play it, and that’s reflected in the sport’s rapidly rising popularity. Why not add it? After all, if it is not played in high school, will it ever become a scholarship sport in college?
Girls flag football still has a long way to go to catch the boy’s variety in popularity, but is one of the fastest growing high school sports, enjoying 63% growth in the 5 years from 2010-2015. According to a recent USA Football study (http://www.weld2.com/blog/relationship-marketing-strategies/get-referrals-convert-sales-inside-track/), flag football’s growth in general is outpacing all other sports, and girls are on board in a big way.
Is Flag Football Really Safer?
As with the full contact, boys variety, one key concern among administrators and parents alike is safety. While they’re not laying huge hits on each other, there’s still plenty of contact. Ironically, despite expectations to the contrary, it may not be any safer than tackle football. There is little research to this point, but some of the studies are surprising.
A recent University of Iowa study (https://aap.confex.com/aap/2015/webprogrampress/Paper30152.html) actually found higher injury rates among flag football participants, than their tackle-playing counterparts. Somewhat shockingly, their research showed concussions at nearly twice the level in the flag football participants (1.3 per 1,000 exposures) than among the tackle football players (0.7 per 1,000 exposures), and a as previously mentioned, a higher overall injury rate. What they did find though, was no other serious injuries outside of concussions, among the flag football players. So, although they had a higher overall injury rate, their serious injury rate (defined by injuries requiring 7+ days away from the sport) was very low, concussions excepted.
They presented their study’s results at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C. In October, 2015. That study focused on youth flag football players, not high schoolers, however.
That study points to the need for head protection even in flag football events. Having multiple athletes aiming for the same target (the football) means collisions will occur, despite precautions. Heads and other body part colliding with each other and the ground can not be avoided, so wearing protection during flag football contests has been mandated by many organizations in the interests of safety.
Girls high school flag football is an exciting, action packed sport that will continue to grow. As football’s popularity in general increases, female athletes will be part of the picture in more high schools. Watch for it in your community soon.