In April it’s that time again. The North American Football Professional League (NFL) selects its new players in a grand spectacle. For them, the draft means the leap from college football to professional sports. But the future of American football isn’t just in college.
This year marks the first time a flag football game has been played as part of the NFL’s Pro Bowl – the all-star game featuring the league’s best – which always takes place a week before the Super Bowl. The “soft version” of football is contactless. Instead of tackling the opponent with all his might and bringing him to the ground, it is sufficient to pull out a flag stuck in the back of the waistband of the player who has the ball – the flag – to stop the move.
Hosting the Pro Bowl in the flag version can certainly be seen as a sign of recognition of the inclusive, accessible version of American football. Finally, flag football, which does without all the safety equipment with protectors and helmets, is inexpensive and easy to understand. It can also be played by people of all ages and genders – even in mixed teams with women and men. At the same time, it is also an expression of how flag football is reinvigorating the participation and development strategies of the sport.
Massive worries about young people
A new study led by the Boston University CTE Center, which studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a rare form of dementia that results from repeated head injuries, has found that players who play traditional tackle football “repeatedly Blows to the head can also lead to less white matter in the brain, potentially causing impulsive behavior and other thinking problems, whether someone has CTE or not.”
This further evidence of American football’s unhealthiness, coupled with the high incidence of concussions, has led to a decline in tackle football players. As Forbes reported in 2020, in the 11 years between 2008 and 2019, “the total number of youth ages six to 18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000.”
Not limited to North America
According to the International Football Association (IFAF), there are an estimated 20 million flag football players in more than 100 countries. In Japan, half a million elementary school students per grade level have the opportunity to play flag football, while Mexico added 100,000 new flag football players in 2021 alone. For example, flag football will overtake tackle football in terms of organized participation opportunities across the IFAF’s 72 national member associations this year.
The sport is now booming worldwide. Mexico’s women beat the United States at the 2022 World Games, Papa New Guinea is about to play in its first IFAF tournament and the proportion of women playing high school flag football in the United States has increased 40 percent since 2018.
Touchdown in Vietnam
Vietnam, one of the 72 IFAF members, is also experiencing a surge in participation, although not at the same level. The sport has been around in the country for about a decade. Around 400 players are now registered in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with most playing in the capital, where the establishment of the Vietnam Flag Football League (VFFL) three years ago was a key moment.
“In the beginning we had trouble finding enough players each week. We used to play in parks and on the streets on Saturdays,” Anetnga, a young flag football player, told DW. “Today we organize real tournaments on the right fields and with sponsors.” Anetnga plays for The Swarm, one of six teams in a league now entering its fourth season.
The VFFL has continued to evolve through the use of Reclub, a digital platform that allows users to manage teams and competitions, view statistics and be part of the flag community. “This year, for the first time, the league has more local Vietnamese players than foreigners, which speaks to the stability of the sport,” Luis Aloma, co-founder of Reclub and fellow player, told DW.
Duong Phan has been playing for almost a year and is the president of the RMIT Wolves. “I think the spirit and energy of flag football that unites everyone is one of the factors that makes this sport so special in Vietnam,” he told DW.
On the way to the Olympics?
“A big reason why I like flag football is the people I’ve met,” says Anetnga. “I’ve made a lot of friends playing the game, especially among the other Vietnamese women who play. It’s a lot of fun, and since there are no tackles and no contact, it’s even safer than football.”
Clearly recognizable: the flags on the waistband of these Vietnamese flag football players in Da Nang.
“Some people underestimated me because I’m a local girl and I look weak. They thought I was going to give up so I wanted to set them straight,” says Sue, who plays for the Saigon Southside Brotherhood, a team that only consists of Vietnamese players, told DW. “Flag Football has helped me learn how to play as a team and build trust in one another, regardless of age.”
The next flag football World Cup will be held in Finland in 2024, where a record 24 men’s and women’s national teams are expected to take part. Flag football is also one of the nine sports shortlisted as a new sport for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. A decision on this is expected later this year. If flag football is indeed included in the Olympic canon, the IFAF believes that “linking football to the Olympics can bring powerful growth benefits to all stakeholders, by attracting new audiences and increasing global participation.”
Adapted from the English by Tobias Oelmaier.