Originally published in the June 15, 2015 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Why Not Flag Football?
It’s time for parents, school officials, the sports media, fans and anyone else who continues to resist the need to reconsider and re-imagine tackle football at the youth, junior high and high school levels to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves a question:
Why not flag football?
Consider how we have long justified tackle football at these levels. That justification starts with the emphatic assertion that the game is “about the kids”. The narrative continues. Tackle football teaches things that cannot be taught in the classroom. The field and weight room are classrooms where coaches teach valuable life lessons such as discipline, teamwork and personal responsibility. Tackle football also increases student “engagement”, making kids more likely to stay in school while keeping them out of trouble by giving them something constructive to do. There’s the notion that participation in tackle football contributes to personal fitness. And in an increasingly competitive world economy and global community, the competitive aspect of tackle football can serve as a teaching tool. It’s also widely accepted that tackle football serves as a valuable community building function as few things can unite a community more than a successful tackle football team. And finally, tackle football is very entertaining.
But consider this.
It can be argued that football is so popular and entertaining because it satisfies a deep human attraction to, for lack of a better term, “bloodlust”. Like a moth to a flame or the rubbernecker to the auto accident, we are attracted to the crunches, crushes, mayhem and carnage. Let’s be honest. The violence and sheer brutality is a big part of tackle football’s entertainment appeal.
As evidence regarding the link between football, concussions and lasting brain damage mounts, there has been increasing attention to and dialogue surrounding how the game can be made “safer”. As if a game that, at its’ core, is predicated on inflicting bone crunching, brain rattling physical punishment on opponents can be made suitably safe. Let’s say that football’s damage quotient is at 9 on a scale of 10. Even with great effort, the most that could be expected would be to nudge that needle back from nine a bit. Would that be safe enough? The fact is, the game is inherently, fundamentally violent. It is what it is, a brutal game. Instituting a few rules that will only marginally improve player safety and launching glitzy public relations efforts to sell those rule changes as having a meaningful impact won’t change that reality.
So, how about Flag Football?
Other than the bone crunching hits, blocks and tackles and the gladiatorial (and expensive) equipment required to “survive” those brain scrambling hits, blocks and tackles”, 95% of the two forms of the game yield essentially the same benefits for participants. But rather than having to literally sacrifice your body to tackle a ball carrier, in flag football, a defender must grab a ribbon from a belt attached to the ball carrier. The essential elements of the game remain, including the grace, beauty and athleticism, albeit without the bone crunching, brain scrambling hits, blocks and tackles. And if you don’t believe it, go back to paragraph two and substitute “flag” for “tackle”.
You will find that all of the justifications that apply to tackle football can apply equally to flag football.
So why the resistance from the supposed “adults” in the room: parents, school officials, the sports media and fans?
We say that the game is “about the kids” and that it’s about teaching valuable life lessons, developing healthy bodies and competitive instincts, building community and providing entertainment. But if that were the case, rather refusing to consider a switch from tackle to flag football, we’d embrace the change. To do otherwise is to enable the continuation of an activity in which our children have a reasonable chance of sustaining life long brain damage. Why would we not embrace such an activity when a significantly safer and less expensive, alternative exists?
Some will cite a lost “benefit” of such a re-imagining of the game to be the loss of the extremely physical nature of it. Without that raw brutality, the lessons learned from getting up after being knocked down may be lost. This is nonsense. I played basketball professionally. I got knocked down hundreds of times and had to pick myself up and get back in the game. Basketball, and plenty of other sports, including flag football, can teach that lesson. In short, tackle football does not have the market on teaching that life lesson.
The fact is, virtually every benefit that can be derived from tackle football can still be taught and absorbed through participation in flag football. Players will still be on teams to learn sacrifice, personal responsibility and teamwork. They’d still be actively engaged in a physical activity. They’d still compete for starting positions and against other teams. And the game would continue to be wonderfully entertaining, but in a different, less brutal (and expensive) way.
If all of the potential benefits for the participants remain, why not seriously consider it? If the game is truly about the kids as we claim, why not flag football? It offers the same benefits without the potential life long damage to the brain.
Are we so selfish as to refuse to reconsider and re-imagine football’s format to make it significantly safer for our children simply because it will be less entertaining for us?
It’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask:
Why not flag football?