Girls’ flag football is now a California high school sport

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California approved a plan Friday to make flag football a girls’ high school sport amid soaring popularity of the game and a push to get more female athletes on the field.

The move by the California Interscholastic Federation — the statewide body that governs high school athletics — makes flag football an official sport for girls in the nation’s most populous state for the upcoming 2023-24 year. The plan was approved unanimously by the organization’s federated council in Long Beach, said Rebecca Brutlag, an agency spokesperson.

Paula Hart Rodas, president-elect of the CIF Southern Section’s council, said the goal is to get more girls involved in high school sports and tap into a widespread love of football by many who are loath to play tackle. Southern California schools spanning from Long Beach to Corona are hoping to start teams in the fall and the approval allows districts to add the sport to their budgets, Hart Rodas said.

“You can love the game of football and not love getting tackled but still want to participate,” Hart Rodas said. “Flag right now is aimed directly at getting more girls involved in athletics by adding a different sport that we know girls across the country are interested in, but not willing to play tackle for a variety of reasons.”

The move adds California to a growing list of states that have included girls’ flag football in high school athletic programs, such as Alabama and Nevada. New York state’s public high school athletic association took a similar step this week and expects to host the first state championship for girls flag football in the spring of 2024.

The vote in California comes amid a surge in interest in flag football among younger players in recreational leagues and burgeoning support from the NFL and teams such as the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, which have been running a pilot high school league for girls in Southern California.

Scores of schools signed up to participate in the pilot and those selected to do so — and the eager young players who played in it — have widely been seen as pioneers in the sport.

Paul Schmidt said being part of a start-up has been exciting for his 14-year-old daughter, who had never played flag football before she tried out for the team at Redondo Union High School, one of the schools participating in the league. Making the sport official should make it easier to secure field time, he said, and gives a boost to a tight-knit team of girls that has bonded around starting something new.

“She loves it, loves it. It’s exciting to be in a new sport,” he said.

Rising interest in flag football — in which no one gets tackled and a play ends when an opposing player pulls a flag from a belt around the ball-carrier’s waist — comes amid concern about the risk of concussions and other injuries from tackle football.

In the decade leading up to 2018-19, the number of girls playing flag football in U.S. high schools doubled to 11,000, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Without the CIF’s approval, California high schools could organize flag football clubs. But coaches said allowing official interscholastic competition will likely drive more schools to start teams and develop a pipeline of players.

Troy Vincent Sr., the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, wrote in the Sacramento Bee that times have changed since he played professional football, which back then was “broadly seen as a man’s game.” He said high school players might be able to play into college and beyond as universities have also ramped up the sport.

Vincent is also pushing to get flag football added to 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

“This is no longer just a backyard sport for girls’ pickup games during family holiday gatherings,” he said.

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