A quarter of Americans want flag football to replace high school football

Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesAs football fans search for a way to keep the sport safe, a quarter of Americans are now open to the idea of high schools embracing flag football.
  • The issue of player safety has come to the forefront of debates around the future of football in recent years.
  • While rule changes and advancements in helmets and padding can help, as we learn more about the damage the sport can cause, some have argued for more dramatic shifts in the sport, especially at the youth level.
  • A recent INSIDER poll asked readers whether they believed high-school football should begin to shift away from full-contact towards flag football, and revealed some fascinating faultlines on the issue.

Football is a dangerous sport.

As we learn more about the dangers of concussions, CTE, and extended, the specific damage the sport’s repetitive, hard-hitting nature can cause and perpetuate, the debate around how to make the sport safer has ebbed and flowed, especially when it comes to the high school game.

While changing the rules around kickoffs and advancement in helmets and padding can mitigate some of the risk involved in the sport, at younger levels, more drastic measures have been considered, including the idea of eventually shifting high-school football away from the hard hits in favour of flag football. A separate proposal to mandate flag football under age 14 has even attracted support from NFL stars such as Drew Brees.

It’s a change that would take time, and in some parts of the country, would likely never take hold, but a recent INSIDER poll shows that Americans are more open to the idea than you might think and that the debate separates on some fascinating faultlines.

INSIDER ran a poll on SurveyMonkey Audience with 1,175 respondents from January 22 to 23, 2019. We asked respondents about whether they thought youth football needed to change.

We asked “Which best describes your view about youth football?” and offered three rotating options to represent various viewpoints about the game:

  • I would like if flag football became a preferred version of high school play rather than the full-tackle game
  • I think high-school football takes player safety seriously, and shouldn’t transition to flag football
  • I don’t agree with either of these / I don’t know

Overall, 25% of respondents wanted the flag football option, while 37% thought the game took sufficient precautions as is and 38% didn’t know or didn’t agree.

But the deeper you dive into the data, the more nuanced the responses become and the more complicated the issue looks. For instance, there is a political component: 52% of people who identified as “very conservative” think the game is fine, compared to 27% of those who identified as “very liberal.” But those political leanings don’t always line up – 21% of those strong conservative respondents wanted a shift to flag, and 27% of the very liberal think the game is good as-is.

Thoughts on the issue become even more intriguing when examining the link between politics and age.

Among the 231 respondents over the age of 60, a majority want to switch to flag: 37% of the 61 and up respondents wanted flag football to only 29% who wanted to keep the high school game as-is. Meanwhile, the 18 to 29 crowd, which typically errs more liberal than conservative, strongly thinks the high school game is sufficiently safe, with 44% picking that option over the 25% who want a switch to flag.

Half of those polled, or 563 respondents, were also asked how familiar they were with “the long-term health impacts of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, resulting from repeated blows to the head.” This by far was the most direct correlation to how people feel about high school football.

34% of those who were “not at all” or “not so familiar” with CTE thought the current game was fine, nearly triple the 12% who prefer flag. Among those “very” or “extremely familiar,” 42% wanted a transition to flag compared to 30% who think the game is safe enough today.

As we learn more about the damage that football can cause, the debate around the direction of high-school football is bound to take more turns, and public opinion will continue to shift one way or another. But as things stand, it appears that at least for a good chunk of Americans, the sport is ready for change at the high-school level.

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SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Total 1,175 respondents, a margin of error plus or minus 3 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.

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