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Girls Who Play Flag Football – Where Do They End Up?

May 21, 2010

Marc Serota for The New York Times

If you are a girl growing up in Florida and you’re not interested in any of the traditional varsity sports — basketball, volleyball, soccer, etc. — you have another option. Flag football. According to a recent article, flag football is one of the fastest-growing varsity sports for high school girls in the state of Florida. Likewise in Alaska.

The question is: is this ultimately a good thing for girls?

On the positive side, in general, the benefits of girls’ physical activity have proven to extend far beyond the playing field. A large body of research shows that sports are associated with benefits like lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades and higher self-esteem. And more recent data focused specifically on Title IX — legislation requiring schools and colleges that receive federal money to provide the same opportunities for girls and boys  — provides strong evidence that team sports can result in lifelong improvements to educational, work and health prospects.

It seems likely that the girls who are playing flag football are reaping the same developmental and health benefits as those playing volleyball, or any of the other more traditional sports.

What do girls who are flocking to the flag football fields have to say about why they play?

Demi Cissell, a linebacker for Jupiter High School and a former cheerleader, said she never considered herself an athlete until she played flag football. “I tried it out, and I just loved it,” she said. Her team won the state championship last year. Girls, she said, “like to do what the guys do, because all the guys say girls can’t play our sport . . . And even though it’s not tackle, it’s still pretty close.” . . .

“We take it seriously, but we have fun at it, because in the end, you can’t get a scholarship for it,” said Brittany Lear, Jupiter’s senior quarterback. She has played on travel soccer, swimming and volleyball teams and is hoping to secure a college scholarship in volleyball.

Joe Cavaretta, Sun-Sentinel

Some women’s sports advocates argue that it is precisely for this reason — the lack of future prospects — that flag football is a “dead-end” sport and that its “time should be up.” Flag football is played only at the club and intramural level in colleges, and the only professional outlet that exists is Lingerie Football League. (Which is certainly worthy of its own feminist critique.) Without the pressure to continuously strive for the next rung, some say that girls don’t take flag football seriously enough to gain the educational benefits that other sports have to offer.

Women’s sports advocates also assert that flag football’s existence is simply a way for administrators to artificially pump up girls’ participation numbers in response to increasing pressure to enact Title IX. Florida was, after all, among the bottom 5 states in terms of varsity sports participation in 2004.

As a woman who played high school athletics — including ice hockey, which isn’t among the most traditional women’s sports — with no intention of ever playing in college or beyond, I tend to think high school sports are just that – high school sports. There doesn’t necessarily need to be more to it than a fun way to get some exercise and learn things like, “there is no I in TEAM.” Or does there?

What do you think? Is it enough if flag football simply amounts to physical activity for girls? Can it still teach achievement-oriented behaviors — as sports are often credited as doing — if there are few official post-high school opportunities?

Is the criticism of flag football as a “dead-end” activity simply a manifestation of our overly success-oriented culture? Or is this, in fact, yet another example of girls being promised equality and instead being offered a separate-and-not-equal option?

  1. Jules permalink
    May 21, 2010 6:00 pm

    Personally I find it ridiculous that you can get a scholarship by being good at a sport. Unless you are majoring in Physical Education there is no tie in other than “the old boys club” trying to keep the jock boys in their schools.
    Schools should have to not only give same opportunity for Women but they should have to be handing out the same dollar value in scholarships for womens sports.

    It always irked me reading my tuition costs and seeing that Im paying out for the boys to play games.

  2. May 22, 2010 12:02 pm

    This is such a rich topic – great post! Football is such a problematic sport for women (men’s programs basically make Title IX compliance almost impossible) – and tackle football (as opposed to flag) is such a problem for health (head injuries sustained by high school players are now a subject of national controversy). The popularity of women’s flag football is potential game changer, modeling other ways people come into this game – and also raising questions about why women’s participation in football is so invisible, so policed.

  3. Bi-feminist permalink
    May 31, 2010 11:56 pm

    Late comment, but here i go.

    ” And even though it’s not tackle, it’s still pretty close.”

    That offends me as someone who loves football and has played it all my life. Flag football is NOTHING like tackle football. I’m not dissing flag football, but it is easily a different sport. When there’s no chance of getting hit by someone twice your size throughout the game, then it isn’t football.

    Growing up, the kids around my age were sports fanatics, so we played 3 different versions of football, along with baseball, basketball, and kickball year around. The three versions were street football. That had the rule of touching the opponent with two hands OR tackling the opponent if they were running along the grass. Yeah, dangerous now that I think about it. Then there was throw it up, usually played in the winter in someone’s backyard, a tree to signify out of bounds. Cold, harsh, you simply threw the ball backwards, whoever caught it had to pass everyone else to get a touchdown. Then we played on grass regular tackle football. Of course I also played football for youth groups and schools.

    I think flag football is great (as are all sports that challenge you), and there doesn’t need to be a ‘future’ in it. I think the curling rule needs to be used. Curling rule = If there is more physical activity that that idiot ‘sport’, then it is a legitimate sport in my not so humble opinion.

    To Jules, maybe you should research a bit before giving an opinion. Title IX means that women ARE given equal scholarships. Sports are also good for a university environment, unless you think every student’s time should be spent either studying, partying, working, taking care of a young family.

    And last time I checked, male football and basketball are pretty self sufficient (the big conferences at least) considering ticket sales, merchandise, tv rights, etc.

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