Is flag football getting too rough?

During a 26-0 loss to South earlier this year, three Eagle River flag football players were knocked out of the game with concussions and a fourth was lost for the season with a broken collarbone.

That brutal evening in September turned a spotlight on the physical nature of a sport in which contact between players is supposed to be kept to a minimum, but – for a variety of reasons – often isn't.

Since its 2005 introduction to Alaska as a girls-only high school sport in the Anchorage School District, flag football has been wildly popular. According to the district, 469 girls played flag football in 2013-14, making it the most popular girls' sport by participation. For comparison, 406 girls played volleyball, 379 played soccer, 311 ran track and 247 played basketball.

It's also become more competitive, drawing some of the best athletes in the city to a noncontact version of football in which tackles are recorded by pulling an offensive player's flag from around her waist.

As the sport has evolved, so has the way the game is played. In the first couple of years, coaches say strategy was more basic and contact was limited.

But as players and coaches in the Cook Inlet Conference became more savvy, they naturally began trying to test the limits of the rules. Play become rougher.

"I think it's evolved as it's become a more competitive high school sport," said Megan Hatswell, the ASD's coordinating assistant principal in charge of flag football.


Bartlett coach Steve Stansbury said he saw the game starting to change when coaches began drawing up plays that called for more downfield blocking.

"Having pulling guards changed things a lot," he said.

Hatswell said the game changed as coaching strategy became more sophisticated.

"As we've had more kids getting involved, I think the coaching staffs have tried to evolve with that," she said.

Open to interpretation

Flag football rules are strict about contact. Players are not allowed to contact their opponents while blocking them; instead, they're supposed to move side to side to impede progress. Defensive players are likewise instructed not to touch their opponents and are supposed to rely on speed and quickness -- rather than strength -- to beat a block.

That's easier said than done. Contact between players is often inevitable, and the unenviable task of sorting out which player is responsible for causing contact is left up to the referees.

Often, contact at the line of scrimmage can get intense. Bartlett's Julia Tosi recalled one game in which her opponent used her hands to thwart Tosi's attempt to pressure the quarterback.

"She was putting her hands right on my neck," said Tosi, pantomiming a choking motion.

That's strictly forbidden under National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association flag football rules, which call for players to block with their hands at their sides or behind their backs. Stansbury said he instructs his players to do the latter.

"We teach them to move side to side," he said.

Minimal incidental contact is allowed, but Stansbury said that as players started slamming into each other more frequently to gain an advantage, they started trying to protect themselves by crossing their arms in front of their chests. Although the technique isn't allowed in the NIRSA rules, it is allowed in ASD flag football.

While that difference might seem like a small thing, it makes a big impact on how the game is played. Although elbows aren't allowed to be extended, Stansbury said, crossed arms create more of a tackle-football style of blocking.

Bruce McKay, a member of the Anchorage Football Officials Association board of directors, said the rule difference makes for more contact.

"Contact during play will continue as long as ASD continues to allow techniques that are outside the parameters of the NIRSA rulebook, i.e. screen blocking with the arms in front of the body," said McKay.

Hatswell said the CIC's coaches discussed changing the rule at their postseason meeting, but decided the current blocking rules were acceptable for next season.

Calls for action

Injuries in flag football range from sprained ankles and torn knee ligaments to concussions. An informal poll of the eight CIC coaches showed most had at least one player lost for the season because of an injury. And according to the Alaska School Activities Association, there were at least six concussions in the sport this season.

Hatswell said the school district is working with coaches and officials to make flag football as contact-free as possible.


"We want to keep our kids safe," she said.

Hatswell met with coaches and officials after she received a call from Eagle River coach Valerie Spencer following the Wolves' 26-0 loss to South on Sept. 6, a game that saw four Eagle River players taken off due to injuries. Hatswell said she fielded several calls from coaches about rough play in that weekend's slate of games.

"That particular week, I received about three or four complaints," she said.

In the wake of that weekend's carnage, officials began trying to call games tighter, Hatswell said. That was evidenced in an Oct. 7 matchup between East and Service in which several illegal contact penalties were called early in the game. Several of the infractions were blatant attempts by players to either run through blockers or use their elbows to block. After one penalty, an East player raised her arms in protest.

"You're knocking people on their butts!" replied the head official.

Spencer said she doesn't blame any of South's players for intentionally hurting her athletes. In fact, she said two of the injuries were caused by Eagle River players running into each other. However, Spencer said some injuries come about because players are pushing the limits of what's allowed under the rules.

"A player will play as hard as you allow them to play," she said.

Hatswell said the district is working to strike a balance between stricter rules and working with players and coaches to minimize contact. Some ideas under consideration include playing on a smaller field (in the ASD, seven-girl teams currently play against each other on regulation-sized tackle football fields) and bringing up a crew of officials from Florida -- where high school flag football originated -- to give coaches and officials a refresher course on the rules.


Hatswell said she has spoken with both officials and coaches in an effort to continue clamping down on excessive physical contact.

"They've been really working with us to make sure they're getting things right and that coaches are coaching the right way," she said.

Getting physical

Then there's the matter of rough play by the athletes themselves. Stansbury said the culture of flag football changed as players pushed the limits of permissible contact. He said much of that shift was due to one player, Chugiak's Alev Kelter, whose hard-nosed style helped lead the Mustangs to back-to-back conference titles in 2007-08.

"That girl was a beast," he said of Kelter, the 2009 Anchorage Daily News Female Athlete of the Year who went on to play Division I college hockey and soccer and is now training with the USA Sevens women's rugby team.

Kelter's physical influence was clear in an October 2008 Daily News story about that year's CIC championship game between Chugiak and Bartlett, which was described as "often as physical and ferocious as any seen in a game played by boys wearing pads and helmets."

Since then, Bartlett's players have begun wearing padded headgear designed to protect their heads. Although the National Federation of State High School Associations does not endorse the headgear as reliable concussion protection, Bartlett's players said they feel more comfortable wearing them.

"I hated them my sophomore year," said Bartlett junior quarterback Damiaya Ward. "But you get used to wearing them."

Ward said the headgear offers some protection against bumps and bruises, but doesn't help when players are knocked to the ground.

"It still hurts when you fall and hit your head," she said.

'I think I got her blood on me'

Players seem to accept that contact is part of the sport. Following a particularly brutal collision between East's Tierra Warren and West's Sarah Peters in an Oct. 14 playoff game, both athletes left the field. Neither appeared upset.

"That hurt. That was like real head-to-head contact," Peters told her teammates as she came off the field. "I think I got her blood on me."

After the game, Warren proudly showed off a bruise underneath her chin from the collision. She said some amount of physical contact has become part of the sport.


"It's kind of like self sacrifice," she said.

She said some incidents are difficult to avoid.

"It's just by chance. When people aren't expecting someone to be in the place they are, then it's just collisions," she said.

Many of the biggest collisions in flag football take place downfield on passing plays, when players inadvertently slam into each other while going for the ball.

"Most of the injuries are two players on the same team getting injured simultaneously," Hatswell said.

Warren said blocking is a different matter. Sometimes players do whatever they can to prevent opposing defenders from reaching the quarterback.


"If you don't block them, the offense won't move the ball and your quarterback won't have time," she said.

She said players do their best to play within the rules while also trying to win.

"You just have to move your feet," she said.

Warren said she thinks officials and coaches do enough to remind players to back off when things get too rough.

"They don't want anybody to get hurt," she said.

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.