Nike, NFL Launch Initiative to Make Women’s Flag Football a High School Varsity Sport

That's a good thing. But why do we assume they can't play tackle?

women flag football
McKinley Tech RB Jomillah Blissett (10) runs into a pack of Ballou defenders on April 20, 2012 in Washington, DC.
The Washington Post via Getty Im

On Tuesday, Nike and the NFL announced they’re partnering to launch an initiative to make women’s flag football a varsity sport, pledging $5 million to help grow the sport in high school programs across the nation. To commemorate the announcement, they released a video featuring some existing women’s flag football teams as well as female NFL coaches, like Denver Broncos assistant strength and conditioning coach Emily Zaler.

“One million more boys than girls get to play sports in HS,” Nike tweeted along with the video. “Because they have football. Nike and the NFL pledge $5 million to the pursuit of Women’s Flag as a national varsity sport. Join us by voting to bring flag football to your state.”

The multi-year initiative will also include a one-time donation of $100,000 in Nike product to state athletic associations that offer women’s flag football as a high school sport or “demonstrate progress by way of a pilot program beginning in 2021.”

“The expansion of girls flag football is essential to the growth of the game and preservation of the values it has contributed to society for decades,” Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, said in a statement. “Girls flag demonstrates that football is for all, and the greater the participation, the stronger the game, and the more young women can build the transferrable skills football provides for achieving success in life.”

The initiative is, on its surface, a good thing. We’re all for leveling the playing field and giving girls more opportunities to play sports. But it begs the question: Why does it have to be flag football? Is the assumption that women can’t — or won’t — tackle each other?

Of course, it’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, it’d probably be safer for all high school football programs to be flag instead of tackle. No one wants to see a teenager develop CTE or suffer a traumatic brain injury, and to that end, yes, it’s good that tackle is off the table. But on the other hand, it feels a little odd to allow boys to choose to assume that risk while not giving the girls a similar option. If equality is the goal here, why not let them play the same sport without modification? There have been (and are) many women’s tackle football leagues across the country over the years, so clearly the interest and ability exists.

This is just the latest example of the rules of women’s sports being modified to limit physical contact. There’s no bodychecking allowed in women’s hockey, for example, and the same goes for women’s lacrosse. Contact sports can be dangerous, sure — but why do we assume it’s okay for boys to risk getting hurt while girls must be protected at all costs?

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