Flag Football has big ambitions

Tyreek Hill (No. 10) of the Miami Dolphins is threatening to lose the ‘flag’ to Tarik Wolin of the Seattle Seahawks.AP photo

In the lead-up to the 2028 Olympics, the world will learn about a little-known game that is on the rise in the United States as an alternative to the sometimes violent American football: flag football. The NFL has previously described it as “the future of the sport.”

On Monday, IOC members will vote on adding soccer (and baseball/softball, cricket, lacrosse and squash) to the Los Angeles Olympic program. It appears to be a formality now that the weekend proposal has already been approved by IOC President Thomas Bach and his executive committee.

So teach football. In America, the sport is mainly played by children, but since 2017, there has been a professional national competition, whose matches are rarely broadcast. The system debuted last year at the World Games, an international tournament for sports outside of the Olympic boat. There has also been a World Cup tournament since 2002. America is the reigning champion among men, and Mexico among women.

About the author
Koen van der Velden describes De Volkskrant About sports in the United States. Lives in New York.

Flag football is a type of non-contact football played in the NFL. The basic rules are roughly the same: teams must gain as much ground as possible with an oval ball, either by passing or running, in order to eventually reach the opponent’s “end zone.”

No helmets

The big difference: In “flag football”, stealing one of the two straps around an opponent’s waist is considered a “tackle”, as players force each other to the ground in the NFL.

Helmets and protective clothing are not necessary. The field is also smaller and teams consist of five or seven players, compared to eleven players in tackle type. The fact that the sport, unlike the NFL version, is played by both men and women, is an important condition for the IOC’s debut.

Officially, the sport is promoted by the International Federation of American Football, which surprisingly is based in Paris and to which 75 countries (including the Netherlands) belong. But the big driving force behind this proposal is the NFL.

The competition also attracts interest abroad, but serious international growth is limited by the limited practice of the sport. The NFL sees a solution in friendly soccer.

“When we talk about the future of sports, it is without a doubt flag football,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s athletic director, told the AP last year. “It’s for everyone.” Vincent confirmed that guys in the NFL will continue to tear each other apart for the time being. Football tackle will also not disappear quickly in colleges, which is a stepping stone to the pros.

Brain damage

According to the NFL, soccer is played by approximately twenty million people in one hundred countries around the world. After America, participation will be greater in Canada, China, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, the sport is mainly played by children between the ages of 6 and 12 years. The safe alternative became popular among American parents after the discovery of a link between American football and serious brain damage.

Young children have gravitated en masse to tackle: between 2016 and 2021, the number of players fell by 29 per cent, according to calculations by research agency Project Play, while participation in football in the same age group increased by 15 per cent.

The NFL sees soccer as the lifeblood of American football as a recreational sport, and now coordinates the largest youth competition in the country. In many states, the sport is offered by high schools, and starting in 2025, students can receive scholarships to some universities.

NFL stars to play for?

You still have to look carefully for a flag football game shown on American television, but in February, the NFL got the general public accustomed to it with a demonstration game with stars of its own production. The so-called season-ending Pro Bowl has become a joke over the years due to the poor efforts of players who didn’t want to get injured on their offseason doorstep.

Here too, the NFL found the cure in football. The exhibition match in which the players displayed agility, speed and smiling faces – without helmets – was relatively well watched.

If the sport becomes an Olympic event in 2028, the question is whether NFL stars will be allowed to participate. Last week there were already a lot of fantasies about which players could best represent the United States.

Tyreek Hill, a speedy forward from the Miami Dolphins, has already put himself ahead. “Wouldn’t it be great to form a super team?” the former runner nicknamed The Cheetah asked on his podcast. “It would be crazy to win a real Olympic medal. If that happens, you can actually sign me up.”

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