Flag football is changing the game for female athletes
November 8, 2023 by Mohana Holloway, Arizona State University
Mohana Holloway is an ASU Cronkite School of Journalism Student assigned to cover Bourgade Catholic High School for AZPreps365.com
“Girls Play Too.”
That’s the overarching motto for Casteel High School’s girls flag football team. To some, it may seem like a simple statement. However, for female athletes, these words carry much more weight.
Women’s athletics have always suffered from discrepancies in equity and inclusion. High school sports are no exception. Even 50 years after Title IX, a law designed to prevent gender-based discrimination in high school activities, was passed, young women still suffer to gain recognition and institutional support for their athletic efforts. In Arizona, for example, almost all public and private schools have more male athletes than females.
However, flag football and its massive gain in popularity is changing that.
In 2022, several schools in the Phoenix area rallied together for a spring jamboree to highlight the potential of flag football as a varsity-level sport. It was sanctioned for the 2023 Fall sports season by the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA). Normally, the process of sanctioning sports can take several years. A new sport will have to declare itself as an “emerging sport,” a phase that can take several years to complete.
“The thing about flag football, though, we could see that there was so much interest in it. We did not go the emerging route,” AIA Executive Board President Jennifer Burks said. “Instead, we went directly to it being a sanctioned sport in the first year.”
Flag football was brought to the AIA to be sanctioned in 2022 by Hamilton High coach Matt Stone, Xavier Prep coach Michael Patterson and Casteel High coach Rae Black. Patterson, a seasoned flag football coach in Mexico, and Black, a part-time teacher and flight attendant, both shared the same sentiment: flag football is the key to closing the gender gap in sports.
“We needed to make sure the girls got highlighted just like boys do,” Patterson said. “It's a brand new sport, but the girls needed their moment to shine. When getting this thing going, we all needed to be on the same page. That’s why we pushed for sanctioning.”
Black, who used to play flag football as a young girl, knew sanctioning could be a game-changer.
“I played in college. It was really fun, and I loved playing, but the thing about it was it was not elevated to the level it needed to be,” Black said. “The boys would have referees, but we didn’t. Our field wasn't lined, we had to line it ourselves.”
Black knew sanctioning flag football would equate to a better version of the sport, one with set rules, increased facilities and financial support.
For the players, it also meant their dreams were finally able to come true.
Xavier Prep’s co-captain and safety Morgan Wubker. (Photo courtesy of Michael Patterson)“As a kid, I always watched my brothers play football. I really loved watching the games on Friday nights with my parents,” Xavier Prep co-captain and safety Morgan Wubker said. “Then my mom told me about flag football as a new sport. I was so excited.”
Wubker is one of the many female athletes who wanted to play football but had to settle for other sports while growing up.
Casteel kicker Katie Whipple. (Photo courtesy of Katie Whipple)“I played soccer for 10 years, but I just didn't really find my place,” Casteel kicker Katie Whipple said. “So I decided to play flag football last spring. It's given me so much more opportunity than I had in other sports because we are all just learning and growing together.”
The Casteel girls note, however, that since flag football is only in its beginning stages, there come hardships in addition to the positives.
“I've yelled and I've cried a lot. There was frustration, there was anger and there was lack of patience from a lot of us at times,” linebacker Jaden Thompson said. “But, I think it's really impressive that we're an all-girls team. It gives us confidence. We can do every single thing that any other sport can do.”
Yet another reason the sport has caught on is the fact that it promotes inclusivity and female empowerment.
“Flag football is the ultimate team sport,” Black said. “It doesn't matter if you're short, tall, big or small, there's a place on the team where you can play and have the opportunity to be good at that position.”
According to NFL Flag, in the U.S., almost 500,000 girls between the ages of 6 and 17 played flag football last year, a massive 63% increase from 2019.
This is something that the National Football League has caught on to, prompting the start of an initiative called “Arizona Cardinals NFL Flag in Schools.”
“We noticed flag football popularity growing like wildfire, and we wanted to offer the opportunity for growth,” said Mo Streety, manager of Arizona Cardinals NFL Flag Football. “We’re now honoring the girls' potential. It’s gained so much traction, it’s like a highway now.”
The Xavier Prep Gators ahead of the 6A first round playoff game against Mountain Pointe. (Mohana Holloway photo/AZPreps365)With the NFL’s help, alongside Nike, schools like Xavier Prep and Casteel High were able to get new uniforms and equipment, as well as the opportunity to participate in NFL-sponsored flag football tournaments.
The NFL is not the only high-level sporting body noticing flag’s potential. The 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles will debut flag football as a result of its growing popularity among youth athletes.
Flag football is now sanctioned in high schools in eight states, and in 2020 the NAIA announced it will become a sanctioned sport at 15 colleges. However, the NCAA still has not officially recognized flag football, meaning that it is only played at the recreational level.
“I mean, as female athletes, we’re basically revolutionizing a sport, ” Casteel wide receiver Hannah Droeg said. “ I personally would like to have the opportunity to play in college.”
Despite this, flag athletes are optimistic about the possibilities in this sport, sharing the same goal: to show football is for everyone.
“When I first started playing flag football, I wasn't the most confident in myself,” Casteel wide receiver Makenna Poropat said. “After this first season, I grew as an athlete, and as a person, tremendously. I just really hope that flag football keeps growing. I think we’re making history.”