Will the NFL Convert to Flag Football in the Next Century?

A big part of the fun of American football is players smashing into each other. From the gladiatorial spectacles of Rome to today’s boxing, UFC/MMA, and football, watching contestants exchange blows, draw blood, and even kill one another has proved wildly entertaining. I know I have base instincts as well that enjoy, or are at least still engrossed by, brutal sport. I write “at least still” because the NFL has become harder to watch knowing the severe brain damage it’s causing.

This prompts some moral musings. The NFL certainly has the moral responsibility to thoroughly inform every player of the risks (and to not bury the scientific findings, as they once did). If all players understand the dangers, there is probably no ethical burden on them — morality is indeed about what does harm to others, but if all volunteer to exchange CTE-producing blows that’s fine. Beating up a random person on the street is wrong, but boxing isn’t, because it’s voluntary. In a scenario where some football players know the risks but not all, that’s a bit trickier. Is there something wrong about potentially giving someone brain damage who doesn’t know that’s a possibility, when you know? As for fans, is there a moral burden to only support a league (with purchases, viewership, etc.) that educates all its players on CTE? But say everyone is educated; if afterwards the NFL still has a moral duty to make the game safer through better pads and rules to reduce concussions, does it by extension also have the moral duty to end contact and tackles to eliminate concussions? There’s much to think about.

In any case, after head trauma findings could no longer be ignored, the NFL made, and continues to make, rule changes to improve safety (to limited effect thus far). Better helmets, elimination of head-to-head blows, trying to reduce kick returns, banning blindside blocks, and so on. At training camp, players are even wearing helmets over their helmets this year. Though some complain the game is being ruined, and others suggest the NFL is hardly doing enough, all can agree that the trend is toward player safety. Meanwhile, some young NFL players have quit as they’ve come to understand the risks. They don’t want disabilities and early death.

A parallel trend is the promotion of flag football. The NFL understands, Mike Florio notes, that if flag can be popularized all over the world then the NFL itself will become more international and make boatloads more money. It’s not really about safety (except perhaps for children). The organization helped get flag football into the World Games 2022 and promoted the journeys of the U.S. men and women’s teams, and is now trying for the 2028 Olympics. NFL teams have youth flag leagues, and Michael Vick, Chad Ochocinco, and Terrell Owens are playing in the NFL-televised American Flag Football League. The Pro Bowl is being replaced with a skills competition and a flag football game.

Troy Vincent, an NFL vice president, said recently, “When we talk about the future of the game of football, it is, no question, flag. When I’ve been asked over the last 24 months, in particular, what does the next 100 years look like when you look at football, not professional football, it’s flag. It’s the inclusion and the true motto of ‘football for all.’ There is a place in flag football for all.” He was careful to exclude the professional game here, focusing on opening the sport to girls, women, and poorer kids in the U.S. and around the world, but one wonders how long that exception will hold. If current trajectories continue, with a growth of flag and a reduction of ferocity in the NFL, one day a tipping point may be reached. It won’t happen easily if the NFL thinks such a change would cut into its profits, but it’s possible. It may not be in 50 years or 100, but perhaps after 200 or 500.

Changes in sports — the rules, the equipment, everything — may be concerning but should never be surprising. Many years ago, football looked rather different, after all. You know, when you couldn’t pass the ball forward, the center used his foot instead of his hands to snap, the point after was actually four points, you could catch your own punt and keep the ball, etc. The concussion crisis has of course also spurred calls to take the NFL back to pre-1940s style of play, getting rid of helmets and other protections to potentially improve safety. There’s evidence players protect their heads and those of others better when they don’t feel armored and invincible. This is another possible future. However, it’s also a fact that early football was much deadlier, and the dozens of boys and men who died each year playing it almost ended the sport in the early 20th century, so one may not want to get rid of too many modern pads and rules if we’re to keep tackle. An apparent contradiction like this means many factors are at play, and will have to be carefully parsed out. Perhaps a balance can be found — less armor but not too little — for optimal safety.

Though my organized tackle and flag experiences ended after grade school, with only backyard versions of each popping up here and there later on, I always considered flag just as fun to play. And while I think the flag of the World Games is played on far too narrow a field, and both it and the AFFL need field goals, kicks, light-contact linemen, and running backs (my flag teams had these), they’re both fairly entertaining (watch here and here). One misses the collisions and take-downs, but the throws, nabs, jukes, picks, and dives are all good sport. No, it’s not the same, but the future rarely is.

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