Public schools in New York City and the District of Columbia began offering flag football as a varsity sport to female student-athletes this spring, following in the footsteps of a growing number of other districts across the United States.
Flag football launched as a varsity sport for females in Florida back in 1998, according to the National Football League (NFL) Flag website, with 860 student-athletes participating that first year. Flash forward to the 2010-11 school year, and 4,880 girls played flag football in Florida at the varsity level, according to statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
In 2005, the Anchorage, Alaska, school district followed Florida by introducing flag football as a girls' varsity sport, after a survey found it to be the most desired new sport of girls in the district, according to the NFL.
The growing demand for girls' flag football led the NFL and USA Football, the official youth-development partner of the NFL, to get involved. In 2008, the NFL and USA Football appointed girls in 10 cities to be "flag-football ambassadors," requesting that their high schools pioneer a girls' team.
USA Football provides free flag-football equipment to each school that agrees to launch a pilot girls' team, along with flag-football coaching resources. More than 25,000 girls have participated in high school flag-football programs as a result of the joint initiative, according to the two organizations.
Florida still leads the way, by far, in terms of female flag-football participation in schools.
The girls' programs that started this spring in the District of Columbia and New York City both received assistance from USA Football, with the organization donating one flag belt for each player and two footballs to each high school that participates. In addition, the NFL's New York Jets donated $150,000 last fall to help N.Y.C.'s girls' flag-football program get off the ground and support existing youth-football teams.
Some women's sports advocates, however, voiced their concerns to USA Today recently about the dead-end nature of the sport, noting that there are no college scholarships or professional opportunities available for female flag-football players.
"If you're going to add a varsity sport, it is relevant if that sport is going to provide the same opportunities as the boys have," said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women's Law Center, to the paper. "Certainly in Washington, D.C., all the varsity sports for boys do offer scholarships at the college level. So, to then add flag football as opposed to a sport, like volleyball or soccer, that does allow girls to get college scholarships is not equitable."
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, raised similar concerns to the New York Times back in 2010, saying "always striving to get to the next rung" is one of the critical aspects of sports. Girls' flag-football players, at least for the time being, appear to have no next rung available to them without the potential for college scholarships, Hogshead-Makar told the Times.
Photo: Participants play a game of flag football in the first Penn State Football Ladies X's and O's Camp at Beaver Stadium at Penn State University, in 2010, in State College. Fifty women ranging in age from 16 to 66 years participated in this year's game. (Steve Manuel/AP-File)
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