The Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program released a white paper on Wednesday suggesting that flag football should be adopted as the standard for youth programs until high school.
The report saw signs of "erosion in public support" for football as both youth and high school participation rates fell in 2017 for the fourth consecutive year.
"Some of that decline can be attributed to growing concerns over injuries, particularly those to the brain," the report determined. "In 2016, a UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion Research survey found that 78 percent of American adults do not think it is appropriate for children to participate in tackle football before the age of 14, and that 63 percent believe it is either certainly or probably false that tackle is a safe activity for children before they reach high school."
In order to combat these negative trends, the Aspen Institute suggests flag football as a safer alternative. With less contact and a focus on teaching proper tackling techniques later on in a child's football career, the quality and safety of the sport will increase which will ultimately revive falling participation rates.
"Advocates for delaying the starting age of tackle football argue that flag is a safer, age-appropriate alternative that reduces the risk of brain and other injuries while encouraging children to learn the sport's fundamental skills and allowing them to enjoy the physical, emotional and social benefits of sports participation," the report states.
If flag football were to become the standard way of playing the sport until high school, the Aspen Institute suggests that all stakeholders would see benefits to public health, participant safety and youth participation rates. They also suggest that making flag football the standard until high school will expand the pool of potential high school participants without hindering future college or professional success.
The spread of flag football would additionally allow the sport to teach the values and character traits instilled in traditional sports to more children as a result of expanded participation.
"We suspect that flag football could prepare children for the world ahead no less readily than tackle football, and other sports, especially if delivered by coaches trained to work with youth," the Aspen Institute says.
If college programs and the NFL were to embrace flag football as the norm for youth, the report also suggests that they too could see long-term positive results of the switch. Higher level football leagues are predicted to see reduced insurance, health care and equipment costs along with increased revenue for the industry as a whole as a result of increased participation and higher levels of attention to the sport later on in life by expanding access to the game early on by eliminating the barriers to entry for children/families who cannot afford the equipment needed to play tackle.
Risk of serious injury would be minimized and fundamentals would be prioritized for youth participants, which would have a positive impact on the future of the sport and help ease the public concern regarding football participation.
The institute specifically recommended expanding flag football offerings, shifting youth organizations to flag football until age 14, teaching safe tackling, blocking and hitting starting at age 12, and minimizing non-game tackling at the high school and college level.
The report concluded: "Children, the game and communities are likely to benefit if flag football becomes the standard way of playing before high school, with proper tackling technique taught in practice settings in the age group leading into it."