Yes, football is king, by far the most popular spectator sport in America, the true national pastime — for men and women both.
The more difficult thing for a young woman or girl to do in greater Washington is play the game.
There is no organized football league — tackle or flag — in the public schools of D.C., Maryland or Northern Virginia, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which lists 469 girls football programs in the United States, 290 of them tackle and 179 flag.
Some private outfits offer flag football leagues, though nothing as extensive as the ubiquitous Pop Warner tackle football programs for boys. Koa Sports in Montgomery County and i9 Sports in several areas of the region are two of them. But they still pale in comparison to the youth soccer system that has grown up since the passage of Title IX 40 years ago.
Look at Florida, where flag football for girls has become one of the fastest-growing varsity — that’s right, varsity — sports in the state’s high schools. According to a 2010 story in the New York Times, nearly 5,000 girls were playing statewide. Some schools field freshman and junior varsity teams, and some coaches grumble that girls football steals the best athletes from other spring sports. Flag football also is growing in places such as Texas, North Carolina and Alaska.
In fact, 25,000 girls have played high school flag football in the United States, according to Sam Rapoport, senior manager for a three-year-old program run by USA Football, an arm of the NFL, that develops the sport. USA Football donates all needed equipment to any school that wants to start a program.
Rules differ, but the basic girls game is seven-on-seven, with a quarterback on offense and one pass-rusher on defense. Everyone else goes out on pass patterns, which can be sophisticated at higher levels, Rapoport told me.
Instead of tackling, defenders must snatch a strip of cloth, or “flag,” that offensive players wear on a belt. There is no blocking, but the kind of screening you’d see on a basketball court is allowed.
It’s great exercise, and “girls are attracted to football for the exact same reasons as boys are,” Rapoport said. “It’s team oriented [and] it’s individually oriented.” More importantly, “it’s fun,” she said. Girls tell organizers they join because “this is more fun than any other sport.”
So what are the barriers to girls’ football opportunities? There is no consensus, but I think we can dispense with “it’s too rough a sport” without much debate. Flag football is not a contact sport. Girls probably collide more often in field hockey, lacrosse, soccer and perhaps basketball. I have a daughter who played club rugby in college and a niece who pancaked a few boys playing on the offensive line of a seventh-grade tackle team in upstate New York. Both those games were a lot more violent than flag football.