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Losing contact: Instead, flag football emerging in Arizona, across U.S.

When word began to spread that Mountain Pointe High School was starting a girls flag football program, Trinity Wilson’s social media feed was bombarded with posts about it.

“Snapchat, everybody was screenshotting it and reposting and reposting,” Wilson said. “It was crazy.”

Wilson has played basketball and football, but the latter wasn’t available to her and other girls at Mountain Pointe, a school in the Tempe Union High School District located in the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix. Her only experience was playing pickup games with relatives. The toughness and competitive nature of the sport were appealing.

“I played football with my cousin before,” Wilson said. “He played high school football, and he would stiff arm me. It just made me more aggressive today.”

Now, flag football for girls is quickly emerging as an option for athletes like Wilson. The National Federation of State High School Associations currently recognizes girls flag football as a sanctioned sport in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Florida and Nevada. In most states, games are played on fields of 80 or 100 yards with seven to eight players on each side of the ball.

And the sport is gaining momentum among boys and girls as more and more parents direct their children away from full-contact, tackle football. A 2019 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report shows that over a three-year period from 2015 to 2018, the number of 6-to-12-year-olds playing flag football increased to more than 1.5 million – a 38% jump. That total was about 100,000 more than kids playing tackle football. A 2022 report provided to Cronkite News shows that almost 20 percent of those who play at least casually are female.

Although some participation numbers slightly decreased in 2021, it is likely to ready to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Girls flag football is currently operating as a club sport in the Chandler Unified School District with all six district high schools fielding a team. Mountain Pointe, which is in the Tempe Union High School District, also is participating.

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As a club sport, the Chandler schools and Mountain Pointe depend on players, coaches and donors to provide funding for equipment, uniforms, game officials and other costs.

Fortunately, flag football is cost effective compared to most sports, but especially full-contact football, which requires helmets, shoulder pads, gloves, pants and other protective gear. Flag football requires little more than a pair of cleats or athletic shoes.

The sport is also gaining traction on the college level, with backing from the NFL.

The NAIA added women’s flag football as a sanctioned sport in 2020 and the NFL offered to provide a $15,000 stipend to the 15 schools that agreed to offer the sport.

For now, La Sierra University in Riverside, California, is the only school in the western U.S. that offers women’s flag football. Most programs are located in the Midwest and South, with five Florida colleges leading the way.

There is even a fledgling professional flag football league in the works. The American Flag Football League, which has operated on the amateur level, announced in March that it will transition to a professional league, with five men’s teams competing in a 7-on-7 format as pros beginning in 2023. The league’s men’s and women’s amateur leagues will continue to operate, too.

For newcomers to the sport like Jailah Dodd, who is in her first year in the sport after taking part in open tryouts at Mountain Pointe, the idea of continuing to play the sport at the next level is intriguing.

Dodd loves the competitiveness that she has seen in practice and games and believes that will appeal to other girls, too.

“You get a lot of females out here that are really competitive, and this is a competitive sport for females,” Dodd said. “A lot of people are going to join.”

When coach Sergio Ramirez found out that girls flag football was getting started at Mountain Pointe High School, he knew immediately he wanted to be involved.

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“My background is heavily involved in the flag football world, and I’m also a resident in the area,” Ramirez said. “Immediately, to be honest when someone talks about flag football, my name usually comes up. I received a call from the athletic director and a couple of other staff members to see if I’d be interested, and it was absolutely a no brainer. ‘We’d love to get this started.’”

Ramirez credits Matt Stone at Hamilton High School for getting the oblong ball rolling in the Chandler schools and inviting schools in other districts to participate. Stone initially started a program at Mesa Desert Ridge in 2012 and brought in other schools, but he was unable to get schools to consistently field teams.

This time, girls at the Chandler schools and Mountain Pointe appear to be all in.

“This is the first year that we were able to organize an entire district full of teams,” Stone said. “So we can play a full schedule and playoffs.”

Stone said that having a full schedule of games and workouts keeps the athletes engaged, and the quality of play improves.

“Before, we would play one or two games and you put all this work into one game and then it’s over,” he said. “So you don’t really get a chance to improve your team. For the girls, you learn so much from a game that you can’t from practice. So to be able to go back after a game and teach girls what they did well – and maybe even need to improve – is just a completely different experience. It’s been a lot more rewarding to watch their growth as they actually play.”

Ramirez had heard through word of mouth that a girls flag football team might be coming to Mountain Pointe after Stone and the Chandler district put on a jamboree and sent out information inviting other schools to join.

“Obviously, Mountain Pointe not being in the Chandler (Unified) School District, they did send some information out to anyone that wanted to participate,” Ramirez said.

Word spread quickly at Mountain Pointe as those social media posts began pinging smartphones.

Those who were interested started promoting open practices on social media to anyone who wanted to see how flag football looks. All were welcomed, regardless of experience in football or any other sport. The team also depended on old-school messaging – flyers, tables set up during lunch and from teachers spreading the word to their classes.

It was a collective effort, and Ramirez conducted “open runs” to let players give the sport a try.

“Not an official tryout, just come out and check out the sport,” he said. “We came out here right out on the field one day a week.”

The interest quickly grew as the girls who attended told their friends.

“We started with two girls the first day. That’s all we had show up,” Ramirez said. “They weren’t even sure then. That turned to four girls, that turned to seven and now we have a full 15 player roster.”

Jai’Dejah Turner had previously played flag football in Milwaukee, and when she heard that Mountain Pointe was starting a team, she knew immediately she wanted to be part of it.

“I was excited, I was ready,” Turner said. “I love playing flag football, it’s just very energetic. I’m very loud and I’m very competitive.”

Girls flag football is not a sport that is sanctioned by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, but Seth Polansky, sports information coordinator for the AIA, said there are steps that organizers can take to eventually get it sanctioned.

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Polansky said supporters would need to add an agenda item for action before the AIA executive board and then make a proposal.

“Our board would have to approve or deny it if it’s something where a new sport is being added,” Polanski said.

Ramirez believes the participating schools are headed in the right direction and it is just a matter of time before flag football for girls is a sanctioned sport in Arizona and across the country.

“I do think it will be, as we’ve seen evidence of it in other states already,” Ramirez said. “As long as we follow suit in terms of rules, guidelines, doing what the AIA thinks is best in terms of rules.

“So far, we’re off to a good start.”

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Susan Wong/Cronkite News

Although it is not a sport recognized by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, many hope flag football will be soon.