The biggest story in football this year may not be the high-scoring National Football League (NFL) teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs or how the Alabama Crimson Tide continues to dominate the college game.
No, the biggest football story of 2018 may be that more kids ages 6 to 12 are playing flag football than tackle football. That’s right, more kids are playing the kind of football where you “tackle” opponents by grabbing a flag hanging from their waist rather than wrestling them to the ground.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a group that keeps track of sports participation, says that flag football is the fastest-growing team sport in the past three years.
Recently, the Aspen Institute, an organization that studies sports and many other issues, published a report on flag football. It said switching from tackle to flag football before age 14 may be better for several reasons.
First, flag football is probably safer. In recent years, there has been plenty of talk about the danger of concussions and other brain injuries from playing tackle football.
While most of the attention has been about injuries to NFL and college players, kids may be in danger, too. Kids have weaker necks than older athletes, and so their heads (and brains) may bounce around more when they get hit. In addition, kids’ brains are still developing, and so brain injuries and hits to the head may have more effects on them than on adults.
Some studies suggest that playing tackle football before age 12 may increase the risk of memory and behavior problems later in life.
Second, more kids may be able to play flag football than tackle. In 2017, 18 percent of the flag football players were girls while only 5 percent of the tackle players at all age levels were female.
More kids may be able to play flag football because flag requires less equipment and is less expensive. Youth football helmets can cost almost $400.
Some people, however, think kids can become good football players only if they learn the blocking and tackling techniques early. But plenty of great players — such as quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as well as Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Anthony Munoz and Lawrence Taylor — did not play tackle football until high school.
In any event, the move to flag football is going to happen. A 2016 study by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell found that 78 percent of adults thought kids younger than 14 should not play tackle football. That’s a lot of moms and dads.
Face it. The future of kids football is flag.