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With schools finally reopened and spring poised to bloom, high schools across the country are dusting off their gym equipment and breathing life back into their favorite sports. Some schools are known for their soccer teams. For others, it’s baseball. But you know what no high school is famous for? Their girls flag football teams.
Why not? After all, 44% of daily fantasy football users and 47% of NFL fans are women. Yet there are no formalized opportunities for girls to take to football fields at a young age. As a result, our schools are denying young female athletes the camaraderie and community found in the country’s most popular sport.
In 2019, more than 3.5 million girls participated in high school sports across the country, some 43% of all high school athletes. Of the remaining 57%, more than 1 million boys played football – far overshadowing the 11,209 girls who played flag football the same year. And yet, this statistic isn’t due to a lack of desire — but rather a lack of opportunity.
A lot of opportunity: According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, there are over 1.3 million more opportunities for boys to play high school sports compared to girls. And sports matter – especially in the long-term. A 2020 report revealed that 94% of C-suite women have played sports at some point in their lives — 52% in college — which helped steer them into successful careers in business.
As the Chairman of the New York Jets, we’re putting our money where our mouth is. Starting in 2011, the Jets developed a partnership with New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) to establish girls flag football as a varsity sport. What we’ve learned over the subsequent decade is that the investment, time and energy required to get our girls off the bleachers and onto the field is working. In its inaugural season, the PSAL Girls Varsity Flag Football League developed 19 competing teams. That figure has tripled in the years since to over 60 teams, outnumbering the number of boys’ tackle football teams in all of New York City.
Given this success, our team is expanding even further. Working with a trio of programs in New Jersey – the Northern Jersey Super Football Conference, the Big Central Football Conference and the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference — we created a statewide pilot program in 2021, with eight teams and nearly 300 athletes in competition. Earlier this year, in partnership with Nike, we further expanded the program to 26 teams across New Jersey, with an additional 17 on Long Island. In total, over 1,070 female athletes are now hitting flag football fields.
A key part of this success is ease. For girls to embrace flag football, we had to ensure there were as few barriers to entry as possible. “I saw that other teams around us were doing it last year so I went on the New York Jets website…and I got an answer that same day,” said Cate Cardew, a player from Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, NJ. “ I was like, ‘whoah, this is real.’ Slowly it became more and more real…(and) we had more than 50 girls sign up.”
Those of us in the sports world often talk about providing “more opportunities to women.” But football — particularly flag football — offers an exciting chance to turn those words into action. Long a casual pastime, girls flag football should now be sanctioned as an official varsity high school sport. And this should happen with the tacit support of local leaders across the nation.
This is an opportunity worth fighting for. As Dori Scovish, whose daughter plays in the league we helped establish and attends the Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, NJ, told us: “The disparity between the number of boys vs. girls that play high school football is startling. I am hopeful that girls flag football will become an official high school sport. It is with great pride that I can state that my daughter is breaking barriers by participating in this sport and I’m loving cheering for her on the sidelines.”
Robert Wood Johnson IV is the owner of the New York Jets and the former United States ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2017 to 2021.