Seven girls walk out onto the football field, the stadium lights highlighting their excitement, their nervousness, their determination — all the things that come with the beginning of a game. They wear their school’s colors and stretch in unison, warming up while the crowd, who match in nervousness, in excitement — the general feelings before a game — watches from the stands.
It’s football at its best.
But this imagery isn’t exactly what you’re thinking. These girls aren’t carrying pom-poms or megaphones. There aren’t any pyramids or “Be aggressive — B-E-Aggressive!” chants. And splits? Unless you’re talking about the spacing between the line…no, you’re probably not going to see any splits either. Or back handsprings. Or cartwheels and chorus line-type leg kicks.
After all, they’re getting ready for some football — Girls Football! — not a cheerleading competition.
Take a moment to let that sink in…
Admittedly, when I first heard about a movement to increase girls’ opportunities to play flag (or tackle) football at the youth and high school levels, I was skeptical. I was also immediately sidetracked. I spent half of the day going down an Internet rabbit hole with Tami Maida — the determined JV quarterback who was made famous by Helen Hunt’s portrayal back in 1983. The other half was filled with Google searches like, “Who played ‘Icebox’ in Little Giants?” and “Was Goldie Hawn’s character in Wildcats real?”
And this lazy sidetracking shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. While girls playing anything outside of the typically accepted sports — soccer, basketball, softball, track, even cheerleading — has been mocked and ridiculed for seemingly ever, few sports receive a raised eyebrow and a shake of the head quicker than football. Girls…playing FOOTBALL?! The emotional and historical confusion tied up in that kind of thought process is basically Jimmy Hoffa showing up to a Vegan cookout with a leg of lamb and saying, “Thinking about trying this Keto thing. Who’s with me?”
(Let’s face it; football for anyone, on account of the concussion issues, isn’t met with too many standing ovations these days.)
But times do change — as I write this, girls are taking the field and playing football. Not fútbol. Football! And these opportunities aren’t just for inclusion on the boy’s teams, either — although some of those have been pretty damn impressive. No, I’m talking about girls participating in high school, in leagues and clubs exclusively designed for them.
In those moments, post-rabbit hole, I learned about a Girls Tackle League in Utah providing stories of growing confidence. A chance to participate in sports beyond the typically expected “options” that might not be all that interesting. And that was just the beginning. With each new piece of information that I uncovered, a “Hey, You See This?!” neon sign blinked above it. The incredible efforts to increase awareness and involvement for the girls highlighted this was more significant than a gimmicky campaign.
Girls playing football is not just some movement. It’s The Movement.
That’s how Dion Lee enthusiastically described it to me. Lee, a man with 29 years’ experience coaching football — and more playing — is out to change the game. Literally. The founder of the Vegas-based non-profit Girls Football Association (GFA), he is attempting to place flag football at the forefront of high school athletics for girls. And one day, hopefully, the NCAA. With the help of Premier 7 — a partnership assisting at the youth levels — the goal is to get 10,000 schools across the US to adopt a flag football program.
It is an uphill battle, of course, with the organization going through the expected tug and pull. “No one wants to be the Guinea pig when it comes to opening a new market,” Lee told me. Adding that, “some of the older decision-makers are skeptical about trying something new or feel that there is not enough interest and don’t want to put in the effort.”
But that type of roadblock doesn’t seem to carry a permanent effect, though. So far, Nevada, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, and 19 schools in the San Francisco area are offering flag football at the high school level. The numbers, as of 2017–18, were around 11,000 girls playing in 350 schools. Crunch that into a per-school participation rate, and you have 50-plus girls playing the game. Not bad. Put that under the Title IX microscope, however, and it’s an entirely different concept. An “a-ha!” moment to one of the greatest sports-related puzzles. Ever.
Lee, who is a girls flag football coach in the Vegas area, is also a father to six children — three girls — so he understands the importance of Title IX. Where he was once a disgruntled college athlete in the early ’90s, left to watch the Long Beach St. football program cut due to Title IX and wonder what could’ve been, he is now teaching people what it can be.
“Girls have 1.5 million fewer opportunities than boys do in high school sports,” he told me. “Why? Because of football. Every sport has a male and female component — except football.”
That’s where GFA’s initiative truly shines. By fielding between 60 to 90 players, across Freshman, JV, and Varsity teams, schools would substantially increase participation for girl athletes. “Get 10,000 schools to adopt the program,” Lee said, “that would be 500,000 to 900,000 girls playing and involved in sports. Closing that 1.5 million gap!”
From there, the ultimate success and lasting power would be turning the popularity into something that can further education: to make flag football an NCAA sport.
Sound crazy? It’s not.
Sure, there are Elephants in the Room — concussions being the biggest and easily understood. And per the NCAA, 40 D-1 schools (28 for D-2) would need to have club teams playing flag football before a vote could be introduced to make it a scholarship sport. But the popularity — and to a greater extent, the growth — of the sport seems to fall into what is now accepted as American as hot dogs and apple pie.
America’s sports landscape is undoubtedly changing, like what’s even considered the pastime. Gone are the days of baseball’s supremacy, fans watching nine-inning games while pleasantly distracted by the nuances that slowly take up an entire afternoon and evening. Today, it’s football. All year, rain or shine, in season or not. It’s the King of Sports in America. ( A recent poll in Men’s Health asked: 2019 NFL Kickoff on September 5, or the MLB pennant races all of September? It was 81–19, NFL.)
With that kind of dynamic popularity, oddly enough, comes an incredibly overlooked or ignored fact: Nearly half of NFL fans are women.
Yep, women are football fans. Like the rest of the Sunday — and Thursday and Friday and Monday and ALL DAY EVERY DAY — cosmos. They are part of the game, on and off the field. Regardless if some fight to make that latter part an impossible journey, it’s still a reality. ESPN’s Mina Kimes served as a color analyst during LA Rams preseason games this year and did a great job. Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas’ excellent NFL coverage is always some of the best in the biz. Ladies like Katie Nolan and Charlotte Wilder have shifted the proverbial content needle, making the “entertainment” part of sports entertainment more authentic than ever before. They are all thriving in the NFL media-frenzy — a Running of the Bulls, except give the bulls blogs and twitter handles.
And that is only to name a few — off the field.
Then there is Jennifer Welter, Katie Sowers, Kathryn Smith, and Kelsey Martinez. They have done the unthinkable, breaking through the NFL’s wall — sealed with nearly a century’s worth of one-sided opinions — and are coaching in the NFL. They are taking football to a new era, battling what I can only (sort of) imagine is an insane struggle. But they’re determined. All of these women — and so many more — are helping change the game, moving the inclusion conversation forward in a positive way that doesn’t invoke ALL CAPS IGNORANCE. They are showing that it’s A-OK to follow your dreams — which should include playing football.
NFL teams are beginning to understand this and have taken some action to help the GFA. Currently, the Atlanta Falcons have donated $50,000 to expand flag football in Georgia, while teams in New York and Florida have also begun to help. Next up for Dion Lee? The Raiders…of Las Vegas.
Beyond that, only time will tell. In the meantime, the GFA continues working to spread as much information while assisting schools interested in the game. They want to make flag football’s rules universal — there are five-on-five just as there are seven-on-seven — and try to create a consistent schedule for competition (fall, winter, or spring).
And for those naysayers out there, crossing their hands in a fuss and refusing to get past the proverbial sturdy wooden wheel?
“The biggest mistake is not standing behind one of the biggest movements for girls’ sports since Women’s Soccer won the first World Cup or the birth of the WNBA,” Lee said. “They are not seeing the vision of more girls being active, physically and mentally stronger, building self-esteem and confidence.”
Happy. Powerful. Athletic. Strong and confident girls who will one day become stronger and more confident women. Role models for the next generations. Hopefully, more people will see the vision and understand that those opportunities — for girls who may not be the most confident with their body type or the gazillion other things they face throughout high school (before and beyond, too) — are important. Put everything else aside that should be the flashbulb POP!
Which brings us to back to the seven girls on the field…
Did that imagery sink in yet?