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That quote, or a version of it, is attributed to actor Kyle Chandler, best known for the TV drama “Friday Night Lights” about boys’ high school football in Texas.
But you know what strikes me? In the real world, it’s the girls who are kicking down doors. Women are seizing opportunities to participate in the great game of football. By signing up for flag football in staggering numbers, they’ve made it impossible to ignore their place on the gridiron.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, here’s an update.
Flag football is one of the fastest-growing sports today, with more than 20 million participants in 100 countries and counting. NFL Flag — just one organizer of youth flag football in the United States — has nearly 600,000 players across 1,853 active leagues. Flag sizzled in its debut at the World Games in 2022 and is in the mix as a potential Olympic sport.
That’s real progress, with girls leading the charge. In America, around 474,000 young women between the ages of 6 and 17 played flag last year — a massive 63% increase from 2019. The surge in participation led Arizona, New York and California to sanction girls’ flag as a high school sport within the past six months.
As a result, flag football has started permeating our culture. Diana Flores, the quarterback of the Mexico women’s national team, became a sensation after starring in a viral commercial during Super Bowl LVII. Girls everywhere wanted to learn more about Flores, who started playing at 8 years old, joined her country’s team at 16, and led Mexico to gold at the World Games last summer. Her power, speed, smarts and sheer athleticism freed them to think, “that could be me.”
Here’s where things start to bottleneck.
In the U.S., 15,716 girls played varsity high school flag football in 2021-22. On the positive side, that number represents a 40% jump over three years. Yet it’s just a fraction of the total number of female flag participants — nearly a half million players — under 17 in the U.S.
See the issue?
In many American towns, girls do not have enough — or any — opportunities to compete at the varsity level. Only eight states have sanctioned flag football as a girls’ high school sport. Twenty others are exploring pilot programs.
It’s not a lack of interest. It never is. Time and again, girls show us that given the opportunity, they come to play. Listen to the young women advocating for flag in their schools; they continue raising their hands to compete. No doubt female student athletes would fill rosters from coast to coast if given the chance.
It’s a similar story at the collegiate level. Thanks to adoption by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association, more women are playing competitive flag at their universities. A recent partnership between NIRSA and RCX Sports, the operating partner of NFL Flag, will bring intramural and club flag football to colleges across North America.
Meanwhile, more than 100 NCAA schools have expressed interest. But as youngsters grow into collegiate student athletes, there’s a danger of demand outpacing the number of flag programs on campuses.
We can’t stop. The promise is too great. Think how many thousands of girls could follow in the footsteps of players like Trinity Hutchins of Austin, Texas, who’s heading to college on a flag football scholarship — a game-changing break that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
Here’s the bottom line: Girls already have 1.3 million fewer high school athletic opportunities than boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Limited access is one of the main reasons that teenage girls stop playing sports at twice the rate of boys.
Let’s do better.
Leaders across sectors — working in state government, athletics associations, high schools and higher education — should consider how they can expand access to flag football, which girls have made clear is a sport of choice.
The NFL is all in. We’re not going to stop until flag football — the most inclusive, accessible version of our great sport — is ubiquitous. Our front office and all 32 clubs are investing resources to grow flag, from backing local girls’ leagues to launching scholarship programs. In the short term, we’re projecting 750,000 players involved in NFL Flag leagues by 2024. On the high school front, the league and its allies are advocating for states like Texas, Virginia and Ohio to make flag football an official varsity sport.
Thinking globally, our priorities include starting scholarship programs for internationally-born women to attend U.S. colleges, receiving an education while playing flag. The league also is working with the International Federation of American Football to expand elite competition on every continent.
The momentum is real. As women of all ages have pushed for their own opportunities, they’ve shown us what the future of the sport looks like: Football for all.
And girls who want to play football aren’t going to stop until the door is knocked off its hinges.
If you’re not in the game, you’d better get out of their way.
Troy Vincent Sr. is the executive vice president of football operations for the National Football League and a five-time Pro Bowler. He also serves as the co-chair of Vision28, a partnership with the International Federation of American Football to lead flag football’s inclusion in the 2028 Summer Olympics.