Peter Gandy has fond memories of growing up in Florida and playing soccer and football along with most young boys his age.
But when it came time to sign up his only son, Kristof, 13, for a recreational activity, he and his wife opted for a sport they considered just as social and challenging, but without as much risk of head injury: flag football.
“It’s an easy fix,” said Gandy. “If your kid wants to play football, flag football teaches them teamwork; it teaches them discipline; it teaches them sportsmanship.”
Fueled largely by concerned parents like Gandy, youth flag football participation has grown dramatically in recent years. In Chicago, the number of youths participating in flag football through the park district has grown 45 percent since 2011, while private flag football leagues in the city and suburbs report similar increases.
The growth mirrors a national trend highlighted in a study released earlier this month by USA Football — football’s national governing body — which showed that flag football is the fastest growing sport for young American children, surpassing baseball, basketball, soccer and tackle football. And with the admission by a high-ranking NFL official this month that there is a connection between football and degenerative brain disease, flag football enthusiasts expect the sport’s popularity to soar even further, redefining the age-old image of “Friday Night Lights.”
“We think the future is really that on a Friday night, there are going to be two games — the flag team will play at 6 and the contact team will play an hour later,” said Terry O’Neil, founder of Practice Like Pros, an advocacy group based in Greenwich, Conn., aimed at eliminating needless contact in high school football practice. “We think that’s the future because it will be well-enough accepted soon that contact football is not for everybody,” added O’Neil, a former New Orleans Saints executive and former executive producer of CBS Sports and NBC Sports.
Some medical experts, however, question whether the rush to flag football — and away from tackle football — could be misguided, given that research thus far shows that other sports, such as soccer and basketball, have similarly high injury rates. In a report published last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraged the teaching of proper tackling technique and the enforcement of existing rules to prohibit improper tackling.
But it stopped short of recommending a removal of tackling in football altogether, instead suggesting that “participants in football must decide whether the potential health risks of sustaining these injuries are outweighed by the recreational benefits associated with proper tackling.”
“If you start talking about getting rid of tackle football, it’s kind of a slippery slope, right?” said Cynthia LaBella, medical director for the Institute for Sports Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “As long as we really focus on making the right rule changes and ensuring that the officials understand the rules and are enforcing them… I think injuries can be reduced through those measures.”
In flag football, participants follow similar rules to those in tackle football, but plays end when a defensive player removes a flag worn on a belt of the ball carrier instead of tackling the player to the ground.
Since Brian Watkins opened an i9 sports league on Chicago’s North Side five years ago, offering flag football, basketball, soccer and cheerleading to kids 3 to 14, the flag football program has grown more than any other sport. In 2011, there were 110 participants showing up for weekly practices and games. By 2015, that number had grown to 420, Watkins said.
Parents take comfort in the i9 franchise’s company policy after a child has incurred a head injury: “When in doubt, sit them out.” Among the young athletes participating in his programs, which include Chicago’s North Center, Irving Park, Lincoln Park, Roscoe Village neighborhoods, are the children of former Division I and NFL football players, Watkins said.
“It’s interesting to see these former football players … who are electing to go this route,” Watkins said. “I’m sure they will choose to (let their kids) play tackle eventually, but they understand the benefits of choosing the safer route and still learning the game.”
During a discussion on concussions convened by the U.S. House of Representatives’ committee earlier this month, the NFL’s top health and safety officer, Jeff Miller, admitted there is a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It was the first time a senior league official has conceded football’s connection to the devastating brain disease.
O’Neil, of Practice Like Pros, hopes flag football will become a popular alternative to the traditional sport. He said he appreciated having flag football as an option for his oldest son, who played the non-contact sport through 8th grade before beginning tackle football in high school. That son is now a quarterback for the football team at Tufts University, he said.
“Without that foundation, he would not have been successful in contact football in high school,” O’Neil said.
LaBella, at Lurie, noted that postponing a young athlete’s training of how to tackle could make that child more susceptible to injury when they do enter the sport later, because he or she will be faced with bigger, faster opponents with better training.
“It’s better to learn the technique at a proper age,” said LaBella. She added that she frequently reminds parents that NFL players who report brain disease have incurred a career’s worth of trauma — an amount their children are unlikely to experience given new precautions in the sport as well as the slim odds of them going on to professional sports careers.
Amid the ongoing debate, flag football programs continue to flourish.
In Downers Grove, park district officials were pleased when they introduced flag football for youth last year and saw 200 participants in the fall, with another 77 signed up for the spring season, which begins in early April. The park district uses NFL Flag Football, an official program that uses jerseys from NFL teams, said Ian Everett, supervisor of marketing for the Downers Grove Park District.
In Naperville, private youth tackle football clubs have consolidated in recent years due to declining enrollment. But the park district’s flag football program has held steady, while other sports, including rugby and lacrosse, have seen more participants.
“We’ve really seen growth in alternative sports to football,” said Gary Foiles, program manager for the Naperville Park District. “There’s a perception among some parents that it’s dangerous.”
Gandy, who lives with his family in Skokie, said he might have let his son try out tackle football, but for his wife, who does medical research, it was out of the question. And now that Kristof has played four seasons on a flag football team, the boy has no interest in switching to the other version.
“Football is not what it was anymore,” Gandy said. “Before, it was a gladiator sport. Now the reality is sinking in that it could be my son somewhere down the line who can’t remember who he is, who can’t use the restroom. You start looking at the negatives.”