This Is Not Your Daddy's Football

Women's flag football leagues are springing up everywhere: 'This is so big for women'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 1, 2024 12:30 PM CST
Sport on the Rise Across US Is 'So Big for Women'
Naj'i Cain, left, catches a pass during a practice with the Texas Fury, an all-girls flag football select travel team, on Dec. 10 in Austin, Texas.   (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

There were times when Jo Overstreet felt all alone as a standout flag football player on boys teams growing up in Texas. Sure, she was accepted. Considered just one of the boys. But she longed for something more—a sense of sisterhood. These days, the 40-year-old receiver for Team USA sees a thriving community of females of all ages and abilities lifting the sport to new heights. It's an expansion that will only be enhanced with the sport's recent addition to the Olympic program for the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The noncontact game featuring plenty of fast-paced action has been on the rise for a while, with girls-specific teams and leagues springing up from coast to coast—from continent to continent, too, per the AP.

Eight states have sanctioned girls flag football as a high school varsity sport—more are initiating pilot programs—and college scholarships are now offered for female players on the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level. The NFL has even thrown its weight behind flag football through leagues and events. "This is so big for women to be able to say, 'I have a dream to play football'—and to actually know that opportunity is really there," says Overstreet, a former basketball player at the University of Houston who hopes to be in the mix for a spot on the inaugural Olympic roster. "Just saying that to myself now, I'm still in shock."

Flag football is a sport many may have grown up playing, either through gym class in school or a youth league, or perhaps on the playground at recess. It became even more visible last winter, when the NFL turned to flag football as part of its Pro Bowl festivities. On the international level, the game consists of five players per side on a field that's 50 yards long—plus 10 yards for each end zone—and 25 yards wide (about half the traditional American football field). The offensive team has four downs to reach midfield for a first down. If they reach midfield, the team has four downs to score. Every offensive player is an eligible receiver. According to research by USA Football, over a stretch between 2014 and 2022, the participation rate for girls ages 6-12 increased by 178%.

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There were roughly 112,000 girls in this age range that played the sport in 2021 and 2022. Currently, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New York offer flag football as a varsity girls sport on the high school level, and more states are testing it out. The powerful promotional arm of the NFL is generating growth, too: The league has set up camps, clinics, and even exhibitions. And although it's years away, there could be quite a gold-medal showdown in flag football at the LA Olympics. The roster is still to come, but beginning next season, there are official USA Football sanctioned events, tournaments, and combines to kick off the selection process. "It's been an explosion of participation," says USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck. (Much more here.)

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