Flag football reaches the Pro Bowl as concussion fears stalk the gridiron

<span>Photograph: Adam Pintar/AP</span>
Photograph: Adam Pintar/AP

Flag football used to be a sport for the young and old. And nothing in between.

By the end of the decade, if the NFL has its way, it could be in the Olympics.

It’s already in the World Games, a sort of incubator for Olympic sports. “Tackle” football has had some world championships – including women’s championships, in which the US women hold the crown after defeating upstart Team GB in 2022 – but the need for multiple days of recovery between games doesn’t lend itself to a short tournament. And a game between NFL stars and the rest of the world would make the Dream Team’s romp through the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball tournament look like a series of taut thrillers.

The next step: the Pro Bowl, where the NFL has bowed to the reality that no one’s really interested in hitting each other after they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs. Instead of a lackadaisical tackle football game, fans will see the league’s best players wearing detachable flags instead of pads.

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Offering a laidback game for exhausted, aching pro players is one incentive for the NFL’s new all-star event. The other desired outcome is to showcase a game that the NFL hopes will grow American football as concussion concerns make parents wary of putting their kids in pads and helmets. Among children aged six to 12, tackle football participation shrank 29% from 2016 to 2021, according to Project Play’s data, while flag football went up 15% despite the pandemic’s chilling effect on sports.

Through most of its history, the flag game has been a way to introduce kids to the gridiron, prepping players for eventual transition to “tackle” football under the Friday night lights of high school fields. For adults, it’s a way to keep playing – unlike basketball, soccer and softball, tackle football doesn’t lend itself to recreational play because of the equipment (and medical) expenses.

Today, the game isn’t just for elementary schoolchildren or college fraternities facing off on intramural fields. It’s for high schoolers – especially girls, as schools keep working to comply with Title IX by offering more options for female athletes. In high schools, the numbers are going up quickly -- 341 boys and 6,235 girls in 2009-10, up to 685 boys and 15,716 girls in 2021-22.

Not that it’s always the same game. The World Games’ rules are vastly different from those of NIRSA, an association for college intramural sports, or high school rules such as those in Georgia. The NFL’s youth program’s rules are similar to what we’ll see in the Pro Bowl.

Field sizes between the two end zones might be 50 yards (World Games, NFL) or 80 yards (NIRSA, Georgia high schools). Field goals don’t exist, but punters may be present on larger fields.

NIRSA and Georgia high schools allow players to screen defenders, not like full-contact combat blocking in tackle football but closer to picks in basketball. The NFL’s youth program is more explicitly contactless – no blocking, no screening, no fumble recoveries – which means the quarterback’s only defense against an oncoming rusher is a seven-yard buffer zone before the ball is snapped.

The World Games and NFL youth programs have similar rules but diverge on two important points. The World Games feature five players per team; NFL youth programs are typically 7v7, which will be what we’ll see in the Pro Bowl. (Good luck getting open, NFL receivers.) NFL youth programs curiously don’t allow laterals or backwards passes, a staple of the US men’s offense in the World Games.

Different rules (and different skillsets) lead to vastly different games. A recent state final in Georgia was a dour defensive struggle in which neither team scored until the third overtime.

In the World Games, the US men won with a creative, improvisational game with quarterback Darrell “Housh” Doucette occasionally running and occasionally tossing it back to Ladderick “Pablo” Smith, who can pass as well. Men’s finalist Italy have a more prosaic precision passing game, in which quarterback Luke Zahradka checks a playbook, tucks the book into his shorts, takes the snap, plants his feet and waits for an open receiver.

The Pro Bowl will surely be the most colorful, taking place on an extravagantly painted field that also includes space for the skills contests that will test everything from obstacle-course acumen to long snappers’ accuracy. Also, these will almost certainly be the only flag football games in the world with Snoop Dogg and Pete Davidson serving as captains.

Whether all of these games spark a global flag football revolution remains to be seen. At the youth level, there’s little doubt parents will continue to push kids toward the lower-contact gridiron variant.

At other levels, flag football is no more gimmicky than rugby sevens or T20 cricket, both of which condense epic tomes into short stories. The barriers to entry are low, with no need for the body armor and helmets worn in traditional football.

And in an era in which professional athletes are investing in pickleball and breakdancing is on the Olympic program, who would rule out another recreational sport turning into big business and Olympic competition someday?