Op-Ed: Flag is football’s future — and it belongs in the Olympics
American football. What comes to mind with these two words?
You’re probably thinking of a male-dominated sport, 11 players on each side, going at it full-tilt in pads and helmets.
These next words may surprise you.
Flag is the future of football.
Before you run out of the room screaming, try to hear me out.
Tackle 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. It’s happening in front of our eyes — flag football is already played in more than 100 countries and counting.
The evolution of American football and the explosion of non-contact participation has launched flag into the conversation for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The sport could make its Olympic debut as soon as 2028 in Los Angeles.
This summer, the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) introduced Vision28, a concerted effort leading flag football’s push toward inclusion in the Olympic Games in L.A.. It’s the latest initiative in an important and long-standing partnership with IFAF to develop flag outside the United States.
The momentum is real. Countries such as Mexico and Canada are flush with talent. At this point, there’s no question that flag belongs in the Games.
That’s because flag is truly all-inclusive and uniquely accessible, epitomizing our creed, “football is for all.” Regardless of gender, age, class, ability, disability or body type, there’s a place for everyone in the sport.
Barriers to entry are virtually nonexistent. Equipment costs are minimal; in a non-contact environment, there’s no need for helmets or pads. Without field-goal posts, a competitive game of flag can be played anywhere — fields, streets or sandlots.
These are fundamental characteristics of flag football. It’s why nearly 2.4 million kids under 17 are playing organized flag today, just in America. Global participation in flag is closer to 20 million, according to IFAF.
It’s also why flag has emerged as a platform for international participation in American football, especially among girls and women.
The NFL and IFAF are working with 2,370 schools across the country to integrate flag into the curriculum. We’re particularly excited about interest among girls at the high school level. Around 15,700 girls played high school flag in 2021-2022 — a 40% increase over three years.
Collegiate organizations such as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) are also moving toward sanctioning women’s flag football.
And this past July, the women’s team from Mexico stunned the U.S. to win gold at the World Games, the sport’s first entry into a major, global multi-sport event. Women also represented Austria, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan and Panama in Birmingham, Alabama.
This is what we mean by “football for all.” Flag opens the door to participation for women and men. Girls and boys. People with disabilities. People from all walks of life, across the socioeconomic spectrum.
As for the highest levels of competition, so far, most elite players have either developed through flag leagues or crossed over from soccer, lacrosse, softball, baseball or cricket.
If the sport is added to the Olympic program, there’s no doubt that NFL players will jump at the chance to represent their home countries. Week 1 of the current NFL season saw 98 foreign-born players on NFL rosters, with 58 playing at least one snap.
Let me be clear: The NFL won’t stand in the way of any player who opts to play for their country in the Olympics.
In fact, we’re fully bought into expanding flag worldwide.
The league has started NFL FLAG operations in several countries, with the highest participation to date in Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, China and Germany. And though we don’t have an office in Japan, we’re encouraged by the growth in that market, where flag is part of the physical education curriculum in primary schools.
The NFL is leveraging its standing as America’s most popular sport — not to mention with our 216 million fans outside the U.S. — for the benefit of flag and the spirit of “football for all.” The Denver Broncos recently launched Colorado’s first girls’ high school flag pilot program. In the 2028 Olympic city, the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers are backing the Girls Flag Football League of Champions at local high schools. The league is expanding to 16 teams in its second season — and the southern section of the California Interscholastic Federation just voted to make flag an official girls’ high school sport.
And we’re deploying ambassadors — stars like Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Uchenna Nwosu — to spread the word at our global initiatives, such as this summer’s NFL Africa.
To talk about flag is one thing. To see it is to love it. The sport is high-flying, fast-paced, and loaded with talent. NFL FLAG is everywhere, with 1,640 active leagues. The NFL and IFAF are hosting five national and 49 regional tournaments in 2022. Check out a game and you’ll come away convinced.
We want fans to know that flag presents a real, accessible pathway to participation in American football, including and especially in underserved regions. We want to inspire millions more people of all ages, genders and abilities to put down their phones and get involved in athletics. We want to empower more women, raise up communities and change lives through the unique life-transferable values of American football.
Flag is the way. That’s why it’s the future of football.
And that future deserves a spot in the Olympics, where we can showcase our game-changing sport to the world for decades to come.
Troy Vincent Sr. is the co-chair of Vision28, a partnership with the International Federation of American Football to lead flag football’s inclusion in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. He also serves as executive vice president of football operations for the National Football League.