Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
With this story, it seems important to begin by stating the obvious: for youth, and really for everyone, flag football is better than tackle football. Most of the fun parts are still there, and the dangerous parts — the ones that can lead to a lifetime spent coping with neurological and general physical trauma — are mostly eliminated. Amateurs of all genders and ages have played in tournaments around the country for years, some with pretty impressive purses. But it is still mostly known as a gym class activity rather than a true sport, something between Thanksgiving day touch football and tackle that’s far closer to the former.
That said, there are few institutions more deeply ingrained in American culture than tackle football, the way it defines not just high school and college structures but the dynamic of entire communities — not to mention the billions of dollars generated by the NFL. That’s one reason why the NFL’s new interest in developing flag football for girls at the high school and college levels feels like a consolation prize. It’s less of a recognition that youth tackle football is dangerous, and more of a way to funnel girls who might be interested in football away from the hard stuff.
The league partnered with Nike to hype up flag as part of last week’s pre-Super Bowl festivities in Tampa (as ever, what pandemic?). It made sense: Florida is home to the country’s most varsity high school flag football teams, with over 300 high schools that offer the sport. It also made sense given the creeping decline in tackle football participation — both the NFL and Nike have plenty to gain from “growing the game,” even if not in its most traditional form.
So instead of acknowledging the risks and restructuring the football pipeline to make the sport as safe as possible for all its players, which would be both a lot of work and enormously unpopular, they’re taking the path of least resistance: openly encouraging girls to play football with an asterisk, a version that will neither threaten the masculine hegemony of the big-ticket item nor compel women and girls to really challenge its status quo. They’re doing the same thing that was done with softball, taking a pre-existing sport that’s perceived as easier and safer and making it for girls while erasing the girls and women who would dare to play a “man’s game” like baseball or tackle football in the process.
It’s a problem insofar as it suggests men and women have a specific set of capacities that are determined by and universal to their gender — an idea disproven by their own marketing materials. Nike’s Super Bowl spot was released alongside the announcement that it and the NFL would be donating $5 million in gear (namely, its specifically designed flag football uniforms) to states around the country who make flag football a varsity sport. It subverts a critique that I have frequently made in this column, that we’re long past the point of naming “firsts” and “onlys,” with its theme: to make you “lose count” of girls playing flag football.
It’s a problem insofar as it suggests men and women have a specific set of capacities that are determined by and universal to their gender
It also touts women NFL coaches (and, sort of hilariously, women owners — if you play flag football, you to can grow up to become a billionaire I guess) like Katie Sowers and Jennifer King, who learned the game by playing tackle for years, as part of their inspirational spiel, eliding the two sports even as they create separate gender assignments for them. Their inclusion highlights the trouble with the concept: pouring money into the notion that flag football is girls’ football will make it even harder to “lose count” of those girls who will inevitably still insist that they want to play tackle — the sport that’s inescapable, the sport that’s problematically at the center of the American sporting scene.
Again, it isn’t the flag football that’s the problem. More kids should play flag football instead of tackle, full stop. It’s the fact that it’s gendered; the fact that just a couple months after everyone lost their heads celebrating Sarah Fuller as an anomaly, corporate forces are doubling down on keeping her that way. It isn’t inspirational, especially in a moment when trans athletes and their fight to compete is becoming an increasingly used political cudgel, to insist on a constructed gender binary.
It isn’t inspirational to create a new system around the old idea that there’s a ceiling on what women and girls are capable of. What would be inspirational would be a real commitment to a much simpler idea, one that doesn’t require any roundabout faux-feminist but actually anti-woman rhetoric: that every sport is for everyone.