January 23, 2024
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated he wouldn’t sign a bill banning tackle football for the state’s kids under 12, eliciting cheers from parental rights advocates and conservatives decrying government overreach. Politico pointed out that as one of President Biden’s chief reelection surrogates and a person who has obvious ambitions for a future presidential run, Newsom was surely motivated to protect himself from “attacks about coastal elites messing with an American institution.” Newsom’s veto threat was also an olive branch held out to right-wing culture warriors. The bill would have instituted the first state ban on youth tackle football, and it could have had a major impact on the sport’s cultural role as a place where masculinity gets made.
Echoing rhetoric used in the battles over school curricula in Florida and other red states, opponents of California Assembly Bill 734 maintained that parents should have ultimate decision-making power over their children’s exposure to contact sports. (Research suggests that the earlier one is exposed to repeated head trauma, and the longer one participates, the higher the likelihood of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and other traumatic brain injuries. These particular decisions parents make on behalf of their children could have significant health ramifications decades later.)
Even beyond its key role in this outrage du jour of the parental rights news cycle, the issue of young people’s participation in tackle football has been politicized. Football, the spectator sport, is not as right-coded as its patriotic halftime shows might lead you to assume. The NFL is still broadly popular across party lines and demographic variances. But polling data suggests that conservatives are much more likely to recommend youth participation in the sport than liberals are. Deep-blue California has been notably influenced by this shift, as the number of high school football players, which is falling in many states, dipped 18 percent there between 2015 and 2022. This decline has begun to affect California’s status as a hotbed of college football recruiting: Long since surpassed by Texas and Florida as a premier site of high school talent, it is now regularly considered less rich in prospects than Georgia, a state with roughly one-quarter the Golden State’s population. The proposed ban on tackle football for kids below seventh grade would have only exacerbated this effect, as opponents warned of a deleterious impact on tackling fundamentals.
But in California, football is in fact booming—just not the tackle variety, a fact recognized by the sponsor of the youth tackle ban bill, state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (a Democrat who is not to be confused with former Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, also a Californian). “There are other alternatives for young kids, other sports, other football activities like flag football—which the NFL is heavily investing in,” McCarty told the Los Angeles Times. “There is a way to love football and protect our kids.” Flag football, long a staple of college intramurals and pickup games in the park, has exploded in popularity, especially for kids, for whom participation among 6-to-12-year-olds is up 38 percent. The game is fast, requires no equipment beyond the ball and some flags, and removes almost all risk of head injury. And, per NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent Sr., “the NFL is all in. We’re not going to stop until flag football—the most inclusive, accessible version of our great sport—is ubiquitous.”
“Inclusive,” maybe. But flag football is being presented, by the NFL and others, primarily as a sport for girls. At least eight states, including California and neighbors Arizona and Nevada, sponsor the high school sport at the varsity level, but only for women. The NFL’s prominent 2023 Super Bowl commercial promoting flag football featured Diana Flores, the quarterback of Mexico’s national women’s flag football team. Vincent writes that the NFL’s flag efforts are focused on empowering “girls who want to play football [and] aren’t going to stop until the door is knocked off its hinges.” Several equipment manufacturers make soft helmets for flag football, and at least one model conspicuously includes an exit hole for ponytails. Though social media accounts hyping flag football feature kids of all genders playing the game, the older the athletes get, the more likely the players in the pictures are girls. As flag football becomes more organized and commercialized, it is increasingly gendered female.
And for many parents, choosing to let their sons play tackle football is a decision not so much about safety as about gender. As documented by Kathleen Bachynski in No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis, tackle football proponents have cited the game’s violence as a crucible of masculinity throughout the history of the game, despite persistent warnings from medical professionals. The violence of football is still important to many fans, particularly men, and the NFL’s attempts to mitigate injury and de-emphasize the celebration of hard hits have become culture-war fodder for no less of a figurehead than Donald Trump himself. Vincent, for his part, insists that “tackle [football] will continue as the professional game played in the NFL and its amateur pipeline from youth through college. But flag will dominate in neighborhoods, schools and recreational leagues around the world.” Despite such assertions, given the way that the NFL and college games have increasingly become driven by offenses reliant on passing the football, a style that translates much more seamlessly to the flag version of the sport than the running game, it’s possible to squint and see a tackle-free future in the distance.
California’s proposed bill, by forcing boys to play flag under the age of 12, threatened more than the mechanics of the game and the system of athlete development; it threatened the gendering of the sport as one that turns boys into men. But despite the fact that Newsom won’t sign AB 734, the state’s demographic and cultural trends, the developing science of brain injury, and the burgeoning popularity of flag football for younger kids of all gender identities may have much the same effect over time. As McCarty put it, “There is no safe blow to the head for 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds, and they should not be experiencing hundreds of sub-concussive hits to the head on an annual basis when there is an alternative.”