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From Pads to Flags: A New Era of Youth Football?


The CLF published a white paper that details the supporting research showing why 14 years of age was selected as the appropriate milestone for young football players to begin engaging in full contact, tackle football.

The football world remains on high-alert as the evidence surrounding serious long-term head injury risks continues to pile up. Over the coming years, extensive research will add more clarity to the prevalence and severity of mental illnesses associated with football, but preliminary findings already released by the medical community have not been encouraging.

The alarming results have sparked a variety of safety-focused responses from players, parents, coaches, leagues and organizations, but one initiative in particular is gaining significant traction amongst the youth football ranks – the push to replace full-pads, tackle football with flag football.

Early Momentum

Back in January, the Aspen Institute kicked off its ‘Future of Sports’ conversation series, which focused on the future of football and the measures that need to be taken to ensure the game’s long-term sustainability. Among the notable participants in the panel discussion was former NFL linebacker Chris Borland. Borland gained notoriety for his shocking decision to retire from professional football after just one season due to heightened concerns around concussions.

Borland shared his perspective on how the youth pipeline of football could be improved to reduce the dangers of head trauma during critical stages of brain development. His passion and absoluteness on this subject was captured in the following quote cited by USA Today in a follow-up report:

"I’m somewhat incredulous that we even discuss the reasonability of hitting a 5-year-old in the head hundreds of times," Borland said. "It baffles me. I think you can wait to play (tackle football).”

Borland’s push to remove tackle football from the youth ranks has been echoed by a number of leading medical researchers and former players. Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation (‘CLF’) spoke out on this same topic at Chicago Ideas Week last October alongside a panel composed of NFL Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp and renowned neuropathologist Bennett Omalu (who was played by Will Smith in the motion picture ‘Concussion’), each of whom supported the removal of unnecessary contact from youth football.

Nowinski and CLF co-founder Robert Cantu recently launched ‘Flag Football Under 14’, which is a program that aims to educate and inform parents on the benefits of waiting to enroll their child in tackle football until age 14.

“This education program for parents is inspired by the last decade of research on CTE, which has revealed that the best way to prevent CTE in football players is to delay enrolling in tackle football until 14,” said Cantu.

To combat the argument that abstaining from tackle football may stunt a player’s growth and development, the CLF has created the ‘Flag Football Under 14 All-Time Greatest Team’, a fictional team comprised of NFL greats who didn’t play tackle football until they were 14. Among the star-studded roster is Hall-of-Famers Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Walter Payton and Tom Brady.

The magic age of 14 years old was not selected at random – the CLF published a white paper that details the supporting research showing why 14 years of age was selected as the appropriate milestone for young football players to begin engaging in full contact, tackle football.

Legislative Action & Opposing Arguments

The voices of the flag football advocates have not fallen on deaf ears – lawmakers are beginning to buy-in to the narrative by putting pen to paper and introducing legislation calling for a ban on tackle football for children under the age of 12 (see New York and Illinois). Congressmen and congresswomen in favor of the bill(s) have noted how similar legislation already exists today in other youth sports, including hockey (body checking restrictions for ages 13 years and under) and soccer (head ball bans for ages 11 and under).

But with any significant reform, dissenting opinions and research are applying headwinds to the flag football movement. State representatives who oppose the bill are quick to point out the lack of definitive evidence that playing youth football contributes to long-term health defects, in addition to the extensive safety measures already being taken by youth sports leagues, such as Pop Warner.

The opposition also has some scientific ammo in their corner as well – according to a study conducted by health care researchers at the University of Iowa, flag football may not offer the safety benefits that many perceive. After examining injury data from multiple youth football leagues with roughly 4,000 players combined, researchers found that injuries were actually more likely to occur in flag football rather than tackle football. Specifically, there was no significant variance found in the detection rate of severe injuries and concussions between tackle football leagues and flag football leagues.

Closing Thought

The proponents of flag football will face an uphill battle in their push to remove tackle football from the youth ranks, but supporters have to be pleased with the initial strides being made to this point – only time will tell what the future holds, but the increase in awareness and scientific focus on the safety of football will only bring us closer to establishing the safest possible system and environment for young players.

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