In 2018, the Aspen Institute declared a major shift in football had occurred. Citing numbers from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, an advocacy group of sporting goods retailers and manufacturers, the Aspen Institute noted that for the first time, more American kids ages 6-12 were playing flag football (3.3 percent of that age group) than tackle football (2.9 percent). The National Football League sponsors flag leagues.
At the U.S. high school level, there are still 100 organized tackle football players for every organized flag football player, according to numbers gathered by the National Federation of High School Associations, but the advent of flag in high school has led to a spike in football participation among girls. There are 10 girls playing flag football for every one playing tackle football, according to NFHS (it’s 11,000 girls in flag to about 1,100 in tackle, which to be sure is still well below the overall tackle numbers of around 1.1 million).
When there is great, possibly disruptive change afoot, you can view it as an opportunity, or you can view it as a problem. In one suburban New York City community, they opted for the latter, killing the local flag football league in large part because the local high school tackle football coach declared it “detrimental” to his program.
In July, the Shrub Oak (N.Y.) Athletic Club voted 7-to-5 to cancel its flag football program for children in grades 3-6. It had 183 participants in 2018. According to the Yorktown (N.Y.) News, the reason the club originally re-examined sponsoring flag football was because player attendance was extremely spotty, resulting in frequent schedule changes, other programs blocked from using fields no one ended up playing on, and various refunds.
But what tipped the scales was the varsity coach at the local high school, Lakeland. Mike Meadows, who isn’t on the Shrub Oak Athletic Club, told the group that flag-football kids weren’t growing up to play tackle football, and if they did, they were way behind in skills from communities that offered tackle instead of flag for young kids, putting his program at a competitive disadvantage. From the Yorktown News:
Flag football, Meadows said, was “not preparing our kids to play tackle football.” If a student starts playing tackle football in seventh grade, “He’s behind the eight ball.” …
“What we saw in the numbers were people were going away from tackle to play flag, and they were not coming back to the sport of tackle,” Meadows said. “Flag is great so long as it doesn’t have an effect on the tackle program.”
Not only does this put Lakeland at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring communities, many of which don’t offer flag football beyond second grade, it puts those players in a perilous situation because they have not learned to properly play the high-contact sport, Meadows said.
“Not only is there a commitment that they need to learn, but we also need to condition their minds and bodies for what tackle football really is,” Meadows said.
This inverse relation between flag-football participation and tackle-football quality will come as a surprise to Middlebury, Vt., High School, which has built a championship program based on kids playing padded, non-tackle flag football (generally, flag football players wear no pads), then transitioning to tackle in high school. Or Drew Brees, the NFL record-holder for passing yards, who didn’t play tackle football until high school (and, inspired by his own experience and success, recently started a flag league in San Diego).
However, I’m not going to lead some sort of Internet effort to flame Meadows for his opinion. For one thing, Shrub Oak is hardly alone in struggling with flag-league attendance — former NFL player and current Palatine, Ill., mayor Jim Schwantz in 2017 canceled the flag league he ran because of participation issues. Interestingly, Schwantz cited parents’ fear of injuries (code for concussions) for not wanting their kids to play football in any form — and protection against injuries (code for concussions) is a nominal selling point for flag.
The issue for high school coaches such as Meadows is their favored sport of tackle football is under threat for reasons that go beyond concussions. One of those reasons is parents of means signing up their kids for what are perceived to be wealthy-person sports such as lacrosse and rugby rather than football — and if you’re worried about concussions, you’re not signing up your kids to play lacrosse and rugby. And one thing Shrub Oak has that doesn’t work in tackle football’s favor is families of means: Shrub Oak’s median household income of $78,529 is above the national median of about $64,000.
At this point, according to the Yorktown News, the Shrub Oak Athletic Club has not organized a tackle football league.