Elsa Morin grabbed the ball and launched a perfect spiral. Then the 17-year-old came in and out of the cones and shot the flag hanging from another girl’s belt for a key defensive play.
“Something about football really excites me,” said the Redondo Union High School senior in Southern California. “I always wanted to play.”
Morin was among about three dozen girls who recently tried out for the school’s flag football team. Redondo’s on-field scene is taking place with increasing frequency in California and across the country as women’s flag football grows in popularity.
The number of girls playing flag football in US high schools doubled to 11,000 in the decade to 2018-19, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
On Thursday, the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Chapter is expected to vote to make it an official all-girls high school sport. If approved, the state federation – which governs interscholastic sports in California – will resume it next month with the goal of making it an official sport in the nation’s most populous state for the 2023 school year. 24.
Flag football is already a sanctioned sport for high school girls in states like Alabama and Nevada. And it was added as a collegiate sport by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, along with colleges in Florida, Georgia, Kansas and elsewhere.
While girls are allowed to play football on California high school teams, few do. Flag football allows them to experience the sport in a way “that has all the knowledge, skills and ability and strategy of traditional football without some of the more violent parts of it”, says Paula Hart Rodas , elected president of the CIF. The Southern Section council that previously coached the Lawndale High School flag team.
In flag football, no one gets tackled. A game ends when an opposing player removes the flag from a ball carrier. It is also much cheaper than tackle football because no helmet or pad is needed.
The NFL sees flag football as a way to encourage its female fans. The Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers launched a Pilot High School League this past school year, giving many girls a first chance at play.
Former Chargers community relations manager Chase Hartman said more than 70 schools have filled out interest forms for the new pilot league. NFL teams selected eight schools to start and provided uniforms and equipment.
“The response has frankly been more than we were prepared for,” he said.
Redondo Union team coach Jake Jimenez said with COVID-19 still circulating, he wasn’t sure how many girls would want to play. But nearly three dozen showed up for early testing last year, and a similar number came out this year. Jimenez could only accept half of it. He hopes that once California sanctions the sport, he can build a junior varsity team and develop a pipeline of players.
“They loved pioneering women in sport and girls in flag football,” he said. “We are truly pioneers.”
He said he would like to schedule games right before his school football games to promote the team.
The NFL – which invited a group of flag players from the Pilots League to join tennis legend Billie Jean King in the draw at the last Super Bowl – has sparked interest at the high school level. But flag football has been growing in popularity with young players for years, especially amid growing concerns over the risk of concussions and other tackle football-related injuries.
Mark Broersma, commissioner of the Friday Night Lights flag football organization in Southern California, said girls make up a fraction of the 25,000 kindergarten through eighth graders who play each year, but their ranks are growing.
“We are seeing an increase in all-female teams showing up and playing as a team,” Broersma said.
Testing at Redondo Union took place on a scorching afternoon. Many prospects played flag football during middle school PE class and hoped to score a spot on the high school second team.
Despite the competition, the girls cheered on each other as they dodged through the cones and twirled by the defenders trying to shoot the flags. They applauded the fastest sprinter, a footballer who decided to try something new.
The novelty is what drew 17-year-old Aly Young to the sport after previously competing in football and athletics. Young always loved football but did not come out for the tackle team, fearing injury. Then she found the flag.
“It’s a fun environment, it’s super competitive,” she said.
In recent years, parents and health experts have raised concerns about the risk of head injuries from tackling football, particularly in developing children, with some suggesting that young children are more likely to safety with the flag. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from last year, meanwhile, found that kids playing tackle football had 15 times more head impacts than those playing flag football.
Morin is one of the few girls to play both tackle and flag. She said she fell in love with football after arriving in the United States from France five years ago, but was initially discouraged from playing with boys by a former coach who is no longer in school.
This year, she is the ball carrier for the school football team and the leader of the women’s flag team. She rallied the girls trying on the flag even as they fumbled, reassuring them with “you got it, girl!”
She also told them about the fun they had last season when their school won the drivers league championship.
“We had a lot of chances because you never knew the girls were playing football,” Morin told a newcomer as he tossed the ball to her during warm-ups. “It was drugs.”