Is flag football the future of the game?

As fewer parents are letting their children play, many are seeking a less dangerous alternative

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“Where does it stop?” Andy Reid was griping about the NFL’s new kickoff rule.

This year, for the first time, players can call for a fair catch on kickoffs short of the end zone, with the play considered a touchback and the ball coming out to the twenty-five-yard line. The rule is meant to reduce concussions on kickoff returns — the most hazardous play in the game, with players often colliding at top speed.

“We’ll see how this goes,” said Reid, head coach of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. But he had his doubts. Reid…

“Where does it stop?” Andy Reid was griping about the NFL’s new kickoff rule.

This year, for the first time, players can call for a fair catch on kickoffs short of the end zone, with the play considered a touchback and the ball coming out to the twenty-five-yard line. The rule is meant to reduce concussions on kickoff returns — the most hazardous play in the game, with players often colliding at top speed.

“We’ll see how this goes,” said Reid, head coach of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. But he had his doubts. Reid sees kickoffs as a significant “piece” of hard-hitting NFL action. “You don’t want to take too many pieces away, or you’ll be playing flag football.”

Travis Kelce went further. Calling the new rule “wack” and “absolutely stupid,” the Chiefs’ celebrity tight end made old-school kickoff mayhem sound as exciting as a date with Taylor Swift. “I don’t think this is making the game safer. I think it’s making it more boring,” Kelce announced on his podcast. “It deflates the excitement of the first kickoff. Boom! Heads are banging, guys running full-speed at each other, then a guy gets clotheslined and does a backflip and you’re like, ‘Football — this is electric!’And you’re going to fucking turn it into, ‘Bloop, place the ball at the twenty-five-yard line. Let’s get the quarterback out here.’”

The league calls the rule experimental, reserving the right to return to high-speed headbanging on next season’s kicks. But don’t bet on seeing that. Players, coaches, fans and pundits like the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen (“The new rule has basically destroyed the kickoff”) may complain about “flag football” and quarterbacks wearing skirts instead of uniforms, but repealing the rule would make the league appear responsible for any clotheslining and concussing that followed. It won’t happen.

The squabble is the latest sign of a crisis that has shadowed the game since 2002. That was the year the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died. Webster was the first NFL player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He had spent his last years living out of his pickup truck, often forgetting where or who he was. He endured such pain that he would shoot himself with a taser to knock himself out. After he died at fifty, his brain showed the lesions and erosions of CTE — injuries no helmet can prevent because the damage occurs when a player suddenly stops or changes direction. The brain keeps moving, colliding with the inside of the skull like a crash-test dummy hitting a windshield. And there are no seat belts for the brain.

Which leads directly to an inconvenient truth: there is no such thing as a safe football game.

My exposure to the issue began with All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau. I was a still-young sportswriter, with a stint at Sports Illustrated and a football book in my future. Seau (pronounced “Say ow,” as he liked to say) was the NFL’s Man of the Year and one of the jolliest guys you’d never want to get tackled by. One day in the Nineties, his heyday with the Chargers, he laughed and sang along with the radio while driving us around in his Humvee, bragging that it was one of the first two in California. “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s got the other one!” Seau seemed as sturdy and unstoppable as his Hummer.

By 2010 he was confused, depressed, erratic. He drove off a seaside cliff in Carlsbad, California. Seau survived that crash but committed suicide two years later by shooting himself in the chest, saving his brain for postmortem study. It showed clear signs of CTE. Junior Seau was forty-three.

Another player I admired, the Steelers’ Franco Harris, was often called “soft” for preferring to step out of bounds rather than bang heads with tacklers. “I loved the art of running, not running into,” he told me. Still, Harris worried about the long-term toll of what he called “that head-injury stuff.” If he misplaced his car keys he would think, “Is this how it starts?” He died in his sleep last year at age seventy-two, with no signs of CTE.

Over the years I enjoyed various huddles with Dallas Cowboys immortal Roger Staubach and two other Super Bowl quarterbacks, the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler and the Chicago Bears’ Jim McMahon. Staubach retired after eleven NFL seasons because he was worried about losing his marbles. “I was thirty-eight, with more concussions than I needed,” he said. Stabler died in 2015. His brain showed CTE. McMahon, now sixty-four, suffers from dementia.

My favorite old-school headbanger was the Raiders’ Phil Villapiano, a genial linebacker who used to warm up for games by smacking his forehead against locker-room walls. Why? “It made my head swell a little, so my helmet fit better,” he said. Villapiano retired at thirty-five and made it into his seventies with no signs of brain damage. One of sports science’s next challenges will be determining why the disease ruins many players’ lives while others, like him, seem immune.

Villapiano, who became friends with Harris after they retired, has a theory about that. “Franco kept his brains by avoiding contact,” he told me. “I just had a thick skull.”

Villapiano never worried much about concussions until his son Mike came home from a high-school game. “I got dinged,” Mike said. He’d felt queasy and dizzy. “Should I tell coach?”

Mike’s dream was to play quarterback in college, maybe even the NFL. “We talked about it,” his father recalled. Phil hated the idea of Mike’s getting hurt, but the kid was dying to play. They both knew he couldn’t win games and impress Division I recruiters by sitting on the bench. So Mike kept his mouth shut and his options open. He led his Rumson, New Jersey high school team to a state title and went on to play quarterback at Brown.

Did the Villapianos make the right call? Many families have been opting for sports they see as safer. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 926,886 high schoolers played tackle football in 2021-22, a drop of 12 percent in a dozen years. Last season was the first on record with fewer than a million high-school players in America. The drop is even more pronounced at lower levels. Among kids from six to twelve years old, participation has fallen by 29 percent since 2016.

“I wouldn’t say the apocalypse is nigh for youth tackle football, but alarm bells are ringing,” says Luis Fernando Llosa, co-founder of the parents’ group Whole Child Sports. “Participation has been falling for more than a decade, with more and more parents expressing fears about head injuries.” He cites a study by ESPN and the nonprofit Aspen Institute: “Fifty-six percent of moms and 42 percent of dads cited concussions as their top safety worry. We keep hearing that from parents across the country.”

Hall of Fame QBs Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Brett Favre are among those parents. All three have said they wouldn’t allow a child of theirs to follow them into the sport. “Football is so violent it’s unbelievable,” Favre once told me, reflecting on the concussions he was able to remember.

And concussions are only part of the risk. “In my day, we ignored them,” says Kevin Jackson, a former University of Illinois running back who gained 928 yards in three seasons with the Illini, including a 125-yard game against Purdue in 1993. “Our thinking was, if you stayed conscious, you weren’t concussed. You’d sniff some smelling salts and go back in.” Now a research scientist, Jackson worries more about sub-concussive impacts than the full-fledged hammerings he endured. “They can add up to trouble,” he says. “One crucial question is, when do they start? The NFL’s paying millions in damages to ex-players, but did their brain damage really start in the pros? Or did that player get however many harmful hits in youth football, high school and college games before he ever got to the NFL? Was it three hits? Or twenty? Or 5,000? We have now seen CTE in kids as young as eighteen.”

Jackson frets about football’s near future but believes the game has been unfairly singled out. “CTE is seen as a football disease, but I’d like to see more research on headers in soccer. Or swimming and diving: what effect does hitting the water on a high dive have on the brain? Watch a rodeo on TV — are you telling me that riding a bucking bronco can’t lead to CTE in cowboys?” Like Chiefs coach Reid, he sees football as a contact sport with built-in risks. “Football is stigmatized, but what are parents supposed to tell their kid if he’s the best athlete at his school? Are they going to put him in soccer or wrestling instead? Or MMA?”

What’s a red-blooded, American football-loving, family to do? Jackson’s first tip is simple: “Make sure your kid’s helmet fits right.” New helmet designs may help. The expensive multipiece VICIS helmets absorb and distribute impact better than solid-plastic models. They also offer positional options: a “trench helmet” with more padding at the front for linemen, a “QB helmet” with extra padding on top and in back for sack attacks. He has high hopes for a helmet that might limit damage by cooling concussed player’s brains. Yet no helmet can keep the brain from colliding with the skull when a player stops or changes direction.

There is a way forward: a way to reduce the risks to millions of players without diminishing the game at the high school, college and pro levels.

The answer to football’s crisis is the very thing Andy Reid warned us about:

Flag football.

While the full-contact game keeps losing ground, its less hazardous format is booming. More than 2.4 million American kids played flag football last year.

“That’s progress,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the world’s leading authorities on CTE. “Parents are starting to think of football as a sport that comes with risks. Some of those risks can be lessened — if we’re smart.” Cantu, director of the Cantu Concussion Center at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, has urged the surgeon general to ban tackle football for kids under fourteen, along with body checking in high-school hockey and heading the ball in high-school soccer. “The young brain is still developing,” he tells me. “Helmets do a great job of preventing skull fractures and intracranial bleeds. They can reduce acceleration forces. But it’s a stretch to think they can ever eliminate concussions—or countless lesser impacts that may trigger CTE on top of other damage.” Cantu applauds the rise of flag football. “Players should wait until high school to play tackle football,” he says, “or they should choose a different sport.”

Players and their families are doing just that. The current decade is the first ever to feature more flag football players than tackle players. As one enthusiastic backer puts it, “Watch out, pickleball — flag football is moving the chains toward becoming America’s fastest-growing sport.” The game will make its Olympic debut at the Los Angeles Summer Games in 2028 (the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes says he’d like to play), and this year the NFL replaced its annual Pro Bowl, which had become a yawn because nobody wants to get hurt in an exhibition, with an AFC-NFC flag football game.

In fact, the NFL is one of the younger game’s boosters. NFL FLAG, the league’s youth program, now sponsors 1,853 flag football leagues and more than 600,000 players nationwide. A year ago the NFL and Nike launched a grassroots initiative to promote the game among girls: state athletic associations can now score $100,000 worth of free equipment — from flags and balls to shoes, mouthguards and pylons — just by asking. All that corporate money brings a side benefit: it reduces football’s sometimes-toxic masculinity. Diana Flores, the cat-quick QB of Mexico’s national team, starred in a Super Bowl commercial this year, eluding Fox TV’s Erin Andrews and half a dozen NFL pursuers with a little help from Billie Jean King.

Half a century after replacing baseball as the de facto national pastime, football shows signs of evolving into a sport for everybody. Thanks to flag football, female participation has jumped 63 percent since 2019.

Hall of Fame QB Steve Young now coaches his daughters’ flag team in suburban San Francisco. Young’s daughter Summer, who grew up watching tackle football played by men and boys, told the Athletic that the game has been a dream come true: “It’s a sport I always wanted to play, and now I get to.”

“We talk about inclusion a lot now,” flag coach Young said. “This is what it feels like and looks like. We should have been doing this for thirty years.”

Other old-timers worry that banning tackling in youth football could hurt the pro game’s future. What if the best athletes opt for soccer or basketball instead?

Jackson, the Illini running back turned sports scientist, says that will never happen. “The best athlete in your school is always going to want to play quarterback.”

CTE expert Cantu sees a bright future for America’s favorite sport. “We don’t want football to go away,” he says. “We just want it to be safer. If you’ve got a twelve-year-old who wants to be the next Patrick Mahomes, he should be slinging the ball all over the field in middle-school flag football.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2024 World edition.