Does flag football represent the future of not only youth football but the survival of the sport as a whole? That’s the conclusion reached by a new white paper released yesterday by the Aspen Institute, which recommends USA Football and Pop Warner adopt policies that would restrict young football players to flag football before the age of 14.

The white paper cites the growing popularity of flag football and dropping participation rates for high school tackle football. In 2017, the number of students playing high school football fell for the fourth consecutive year to 1.07 million, a one-year loss of 20,893 in an era when school-based participation in most other sports continues to grow. 

Meanwhile, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association recently reported that flag football has surpassed tackle as the most commonly played version of the game among kids ages 6 to 12 (3.3 percent played flag, 2.9 percent tackle). Over the past three years, flag football participation in that age group is up 38.9 percent, more than any other team sport. 

The purpose of the white paper was to look for answers to a few hypotheticals, such as whether delaying tackle football until high school would make players safer, and whether flag football would bring more kids to participate in the game. The report also investigates how such changes might impact high school and college football, as well as the NFL. 

The report cites a number of current NFL veterans who did not play tackle football until high school, including Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. Both quarterback are advocates for flag football. Drew Brees last year started his own mixed-gender flag league in Louisiana that serves kids from kindergarten through 10th grade. “I would not let my kids play tackle football right now,” Brees told ESPN back in 2017. “I don't think that's necessary, and I don't think it's as fun at this level, and I just think there's too much risk associated with putting pads on right now at this age.

The authors of the report make a number of suggestions on how football can better plan for its future, while keeping young athletes safe, including limiting contact in practices and expanding flag football offerings at the high school and college levels. Of course it all must be backed with financial support from the highest levels of the sport. “To be effective, these recommendations need full, interlocking support from both the football and medical communities,” the report concludes. “In the 1990s and 2000s, the NFL spent more than $100 million promoting youth tackle football and in 2014 invested $45 million in programs created by USA Football. Shifting more of the investments to youth flag and the training of coaches as kids approach high school likely would reap demonstrable results.”

Andy Berg is Executive Editor of Athletic Business.