SHRUB OAK, N.Y. – The popularity of flag football as a youth sports program, both throughout the nation and in Yorktown, is undeniable, which is why it had to go.
Last month, the Shrub Oak Athletic Club voted to cancel the program for students in grades 3-6, despite 183 students in that age range signing up to play the sport in 2018.
Though Mike Meadows, head coach at Lakeland High School, is not one of SOAC’s 12 voting board members, his opinion that flag football detrimentally affects the varsity football program was instrumental in scoring a 7-5 vote in favor of cancellation.
Flag football, Meadows said, was “not preparing our kids to play tackle football.” If a student starts playing tackle football in seventh grade, “He’s behind the eight ball.”
Children who played flag football as opposed to tackle football, Meadows said, were less likely to continue with the sport beyond sixth grade. Instead of fully committing to tackle football, he said, many who play flag football continue to play other sports.
“What we saw in the numbers were people were going away from tackle to play flag, and they were not coming back to the sport of tackle,” Meadows said. “Flag is great so long as it doesn’t have an effect on the tackle program.”
Not only does this put Lakeland at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring communities, many of which don’t offer flag football beyond second grade, it puts those players in a perilous situation because they have not learned to properly play the high-contact sport, Meadows said.
“Not only is there a commitment that they need to learn, but we also need to condition their minds and bodies for what tackle football really is,” Meadows said.
Parents like Matt Schlosberg, however, view flag football as an alternative for children who enjoy playing football, but likely don’t have a future in the sport.
“Me, personally, I’m 5-3, 150 pounds,” Schlosberg said. “My family is not huge. I don’t see my kids as utilizing tackle as a way to take them to a new level, whether it be in the college or pros. Therefore, I don’t want to put them in the position to get injured just so they can play a game they love. And why should we have to if there is a safer alternative?”
The sport of tackle is kind of under attack on the national level.
Head Coach, Lakeland High School Football
In making its decision, SOAC is swimming against a national tide. Flag football, at just under 1 million participants in 2017, is now the sixth-most popular sport in the United States for children ages 6-12, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
Youth participation in flag football rose 9.9 percent from 2016 to 2017. Tackle football participation dropped 11.8 percent during that same time.
“The sport of tackle is kind of under attack on the national level,” Meadows said. “So I think a lot of parents are wary of playing tackle football.”
Every parent has different reasons for preferring flag football, though many involve safety. For example, Schlosberg said some may want their children to play tackle football in high school, but don’t want to put them in harm’s way until their bodies are more developed.
But Meadows, who played Division-1 college football at Stony Brook University, said parents who assume that flag football is risk-free because it does not involve tackling are mistaken. Football, without tackling, is still a collision sport, he said.
In tackle football, he said, children wear helmets and pads. Yet, with children continuing to play flag football in fifth grade and beyond, he said, “You’re getting developed kids going 100 percent without equipment.”
All Lakeland High School coaches, he said, teach “Heads Up Football,” an NFL-backed youth football program that promotes tackling techniques aimed at reducing injuries.
“Whether it’s flag football or tackle football, the sport needs to be taught in a safe manner,” Meadows said. “That’s number one on the list, is teaching the game the right way.”
On that point, he and Schlosberg agree.
Schlosberg and Greg Horowitz, another parent, have teamed up with the Knights Youth Football League to offer an eight-week flag football season in the fall for children in grades 3-8.
All SOAC coaches were parent volunteers, Schlosberg said, “Some with a lot of knowledge of the game and some with not as much. All gave their time and energy to make it the best program it could be.”
The Knights Youth Football League, on the other hand, uses professional coaches. Though their expertise doesn’t guarantee safety, Schlosberg said, the coaches “have been trained and have professional experience in coaching youths the game of football. The kids will benefit from this by learning all facets of the game, making them better at both flag and then eventually tackle should they choose to go down that path.”
The games will be played every Sunday at Camp Nabby in Mohegan Lake. The campus space is being donated by its co-owner, Joe Bertino, whose father, Frank, was the second-winningest high school football coach in New York State when he died in 1997.
Bertino said flag football is an opportunity to draw even more kids to the sport.
“It just gives more kids a chance to play,” Bertino said.
WHY DID SOAC VOTE TO DISBAND?
The SOAC Board, in a divided vote of 7 to 5, has accepted the recommendation from the Football Director to cancel Flag Football for Boys Grades 3/4 and 5/6. After reviewing all opinions and comments from parents as well as a presentation from Lakeland HS Varsity Head Football Coach Mike Meadows, it was determined that Flag Football beyond Grade 2 is detrimental to the tackle football program and ultimately the Lakeland HS Football program. This was a long and difficult decision as evidenced by the split vote. As a board we do not take the cancellation of any program lightly.
Before deciding to terminate the program, SOAC met with a packed house of community members on Tuesday, June 4, at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School. Meadows’ arguments against flag football were cited as a deciding factor.
“After reviewing all options and comments from parents as well as a presentation from [Meadows], it was determined that flag football beyond grade two is detrimental to the tackle football program and ultimately the Lakeland High School football program,” SOAC wrote about its decision in an email to parents.
“This was a long and difficult decision,” the email continued. “As a board, we do not take the cancellation of any program lightly.”
Though 183 children in grades 3-6 registered to play flag football in 2018, SOAC has painted a picture of a program in dire straits. In an email prior to the June 4 meeting, the organization said the program suffered from constant schedule changes and forfeitures due to poor attendance. In some instances, the organization said, less than half of a team’s roster was showing up for games.
SOAC said this happened one to two times per week. Reserved fields went unused, depriving other clubs of field time. Also, $2,400 worth of refunds were given.
“With a limited budget, the loss of this revenue made it almost impossible to operate at a break-even,” the organization said.
SOAC’s football director, Adam Kaufman, did not return an email request for comment.
AGREEING TO DISAGREE
It’s just not right and we won’t let it happen.
Though the decision to cancel flag football has sewed some discord in the Lakeland community, Meadows does not want tackle football proponents to be painted with a broad brush as people who care more about winning than safety.
“I’m from Lakeland, I graduated from Lakeland. I love our community. I’m a PE teacher at Thomas Jefferson [Elementary School],” Meadows said. “A lot of these kids that we’re talking about, I see in the classroom. We’re just trying to build the sport of football on a positive note in the entire community.”
Schlosberg shared a similar sentiment.
“I want it to be clear that nobody is trying to say tackle is bad or judge any parents who have their kids playing tackle at a young age,” he said. “If you choose tackle over flag, that is your decision and we wish you a tremendous season.”
However, Schlosberg said, flag football should not be sacrificed for the benefit of tackle football.
“Flag is a rec[reational] league,” he said. “One that many kids within the local area absolutely love and look forward to week after week. But now, suddenly, they’re considered a ‘detriment to the tackle football program,’ so the decision is made to take away that joy from their weekends in the fall. It’s just not right and we won’t let it happen.”