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Girls flag football grabs attention as growing sport

Growing up in Tallahassee, she played youth tackle football, one of only two girls in the league. At Leon High, she played varsity flag football and led the Lions to state titles in 2007 and 2008.

Now that she’s a senior at Florida State, she gets her gridiron fix by coaching flag football at Leon and playing in an adult flag football league.

“I always loved football,” Parmer said. “I just like the fact that flag football is very fast-paced. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the athletes who would play if it was a scholarship sport in college.”

While only Florida and Alaska have state high school championships in girls flag football, it was introduced this spring as a varsity sport in Washington, D.C., and New York City and is growing as a high school club sport in central Texas.

It has been a varsity championship sport in Florida for 10 years but already is eighth in the state among 20 girls sports in the number of participants.

Its proponents say it is a relatively inexpensive and safe way to attract new athletes and balance Title IX inequalities. Some women’s sports activists, however, say the sport is a dead end.

“We are concerned about the lack of college scholarships for flag football,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center. “You can add sports as recreational or intramural — it’s great to have activities to help girls be physically active. 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. 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.”

Solely worrying about scholarship opportunities is missing the point, says Hector Santiago, the volunteer program director for the 10-team Central Texas Girls High School Flag Football League.

“My son went to a (Class) 5A high school, big-time football and only five kids went on to play in college,” Santiago said. “Most athletes aren’t going to get a Division I scholarship but are playing sports for the fun of it and to be part of a team.”

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, won three gold medals and a silver medal in swimming at the 1984 Olympics. She said it is important that any added girls varsity sports have the chance of a college scholarship.

“Part of it is the pursuit of a scholarship, even though many don’t ultimately get scholarships,” Hogshead-Makar said. “The thing that makes sports valuable is having a goal and postponing the short-term. If you want to have fun, you don’t train for the Olympics. What purpose would anybody have to swim four hours a day if they didn’t have a long-term goal?”

Unlike tackle football, the only contact in flag football is incidental. Instead of 11 players, there are seven starters on offense and defense and no helmets or pads are worn. The field dimensions vary but are usually smaller, typically 40×80 yards. Unlike tackle football, flag football is played in the spring.

“Spring seemed to be a better fit because of field availability,” said Tyrone Parker, a sports coordinator with New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League. “We’re trying to mirror what Florida did. So far, we have 500 girls on 29 teams who are enjoying a sport that in the past they haven’t had access to.”

USA Football helped start the program in New York by donating equipment. Members from the New York Jets helped with a clinic. Sam Rapoport, senior manager of flag and female football development at USA Football, says the sport’s biggest benefit is it allows more girls to play a sport.

“It attracts girls who otherwise would not have played any sport,” said Rapoport. “It draws a lot of athletes. I’ve talked with parents who said this is the sport their girls wanted to play. They’re not going to force their kid to play soccer because there’s a scholarship available.”

Anthony Jones, who coached Dr. Phillips (Orlando) to the state title this year in girls basketball and last year in flag football, said the sport is an easy sell.

“Once a player comes out there, they’re hooked,” Jones said. “You have the team bonding and the huge spotlights. I’m not calling all those other sports boring, but there’s a lot of flash in flag football. It’s football at basketball speeds.”

Said Donna Lopiano, president and founder of Sports Management Resources and former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation: “When I look at the surveys for interest, it’s amazing how many show flag football. There’s always an anticipation that schools would meet the interest of girls. In that respect, It’s a good thing.”

Parmer agrees and hopes the game can become a varsity college sport.

“We need to provide as many opportunities as we can,” Parmer said. “You look at every other sport, there is an equivalent. Women’s tennis and men’s tennis. Softball and baseball. We have yet to find an equivalent to men’s football at the college level. This is the direction.”

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