By AJ Willingham, CNN
(CNN) — Flag football, long a tradition in schoolyards and sandlots, is hitting the big time at every level of play.
California just began its first season of flag football as a girl’s high school sport, and the NFL fully embraced it at this year’s Pro Bowl. On Monday, the International Olympic Committee announced flag football will debut as an Olympic sport in the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Millions of players across the US already count it as part of their lives, and collegiate programs have provided a robust foundation for the sport to grow. The semi-pro American Flag Football League, launched in 2017, will add a men’s professional division for the first time in 2024.
For coaches, parents and players, there’s more to flag football’s rise than just another carpool obligation or practice to schedule. Its low-contact play makes the game accessible to a wide range of athletes and presents a solution for those concerned about the dangers of tackle football.
And at higher levels, flag football is increasingly becoming an opportunity for talented female athletes to make their mark.
The backing of the NFL and the Olympics now appear poised to take flag football even higher. Professionals involved in the sport hope it will eventually be seen as a common alternative to regular football – one that could address pressing issues, such as safety, in the sports world.
How flag football became popular
Flag football, as its name suggests, is a variation of football in which, instead of tackling, players “deflag” their opponents by snatching a flag worn on a belt. It has all-American roots as a recreational game played among the military in the 1940s, but has become a favorite for youth players and, increasingly, female players who have fewer opportunities to flex their football talents.
The finer points of flag football vary depending on league and level, but the essential rules are the same as regular football. Teams can score touchdowns, extra points, field goals and safeties. There are quarterbacks and receivers, punts and passes. However, rough contact, like checking, pushing or tackling, is not allowed.
Dwight Braswell, known as “Coach D,” is a professional youth flag football coach who offers tools for other parents and coaches to grow their own flag football programs. He’s been coaching for eight years, and during that time, he’s seen the sport explode in popularity.
“When I started coaching, there was nothing out there. No references, no online resources to help players or parents,” he told CNN in a phone call.
Braswell has worked with National Flag Football and other major bodies of the sport. In 2018, he started posting flag football videos to YouTube with their encouragement, and saw a huge growth of interest. He says social platforms like YouTube have become valuable resources for people trying to participate in or build the sport.
Of course, a little help from the big leagues also pushes things along. Braswell says the NFL’s investment in flag football has made a huge impact on its popularity. Top sports brands like Nike and Under Armor head up their own flag football programs.
In recent years a handful of states, including California, have sanctioned flag football as an official girls’ high school sport. This led to an explosion of interest in places like Georgia, where girls’ flag football was named the fastest-growing high school sport in 2022.
“Since I’ve worked in the sport, I’ve seen double, maybe triple the amount of coaches and players,” Braswell said. “We’re also growing internationally, in Germany and Canada and other places around the world.”
Like many youth sports models, Braswell thinks flag football is a great way for kids to build confidence, learn teamwork and strategy, and have fun in a safe environment.
“One of the things that I love about coaching is bringing in new players who have never played flag football and figuring out how to get them a win. It doesn’t need to be winning the game, or becoming the best. Just make that play, find what works. Get a win somewhere,” he said. “It’s giving people the opportunity to be seen, to be heard.”
It’s also easier to set up these wins: Since flag football is low-contact and doesn’t require heavy pads or helmets, the sport is considered much more affordable to play than tackle football.
Boys and girls also can play at the same time. This leads to a domino effect, where girls who flourish in the sport can, in turn, become leaders. Braswell’s 16-year-old niece has been playing for years and now coaches alongside him.
How the game tackles equity and safety
Women are an instrumental part of flag football’s growth. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), in partnership with the NFL, sanctioned flag football as an official varsity sport for female student-athletes in 2020.
Some of the biggest flag football events, like the International Women’s Flag Football Association’s Kelly McGillis Classic, are driven by female athletes. The annual NAIA Flag Football Invitational is played at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Just this year, a woman – Diana Flores, a Mexican player with several championships and an appearance in the 2023 Pro Bowl under her belt – became the first flag football player to have artifacts added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Flag football is also attracting female leaders from other areas of the sport. The Women’s Football Alliance is the largest and longest-running active women’s tackle football league in the US, and in 2021, WFA player Adrienne Smith was tapped to head up the American Flag Football League’s new Women’s Division.
“This is a momentous occasion for women in professional sports and especially football,” Smith told her WFA team, the Boston Renegades, in 2021. “Flag football is one of the most exciting and accessible sports today.”
When the AFFL Women’s Division was established, the grand prize of the league was set equal to that of the Men’s Division. This, according to AFFL CEO and founder Jeffrey Lewis, made flag football “the first sport to institute pay equity from day one.”
The idea of a more equal playing field, and the unique opportunities flag football presents, is what drew former NFL player Izell Reese to make his own mark on the sport. Reese is the president and CEO of RCX Sports, which works with organizations like National Flag Football to grow the game.
“The recent interest in flag football really opens the door completely for women, because they will be looked upon as professionals playing the game, the same way they are looked at as collegiate student athletes playing the game now,” he told CNN over the phone.
Reese was on hand when the NFL debuted a new format for the league’s annual Pro Bowl in February that included flag football play rather than tackle. The change drew positive reviews and was popular with the players.
“I definitely don’t need to take more hits,” San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey told ESPN at the time. “So, I’m a proponent.”
Reese said the Pro Bowl showed that football can be fun in any format. It also showed that football can be safer, too.
Concerns about the dangers of tackle football, from the long-term effects of brain injuries to on-field safety protocols, have become huge issues in recent years. An NFL game was suspended in January after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field.
And with tackle football, injuries are a constant reality. Many of the NFL’s marquee players – including McCaffrey, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Jefferson – have been sidelined by injuries this season.
Reese says the NFL’s investment in flag football, whether at the youth or pro level, is one way they’re exploring safer options. If it’s also more accessible, well, that helps too.
“The NFL wants to develop the game at every level,” he said. “We want people to fall in love with football, and tackle football can present a lot of challenges. Flag football is easier and safer, but it’s still football, and that’s what matters. We want kids to have fun, and people to enjoy the game.”
The future of flag football
Reese is also excited about what flag football’s inclusion in the Olympics could bring to the game. Like Olympic baseball, basketball or hockey, he envisions NFL stars past and present signing up to represent their country.
“I’ll be curious to see what the first Team USA looks like. I think you’ll see NFL greats or college superstars eager to become Olympians. Then, there are so many NFL and collegiate players who could represent other countries. I think it’s going to be very competitive,” he said.
The buzz is already beginning: Former NFL star and all-around sports celebrity Rob Gronkowski says he’d be willing to come out of retirement for a shot at the 2028 Olympic team.
“Hopefully there’s no tryouts and they just accept me,” Gronkowski told TMZ Sports. “But I’m in.”
While flag football and tackle football are variations on a sport that require different strategies, the fundamentals are still the same. That’s why leaders in the sport have such high hopes for the its future.
“I’ve played this sport at every level and have seen what it has done for me as a person and a leader, and all of the positive attributes it can offer,” Reese says. “Flag football can provide that, too, and that’s the beauty of saying it’s still football at the end of the day.”
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