Aspen Institute White Paper Examines Future of Youth Football

September 12, 2018

The Sports & Society Program report thinks through implications if flag becomes the standard way of playing the game until high school

Contact: Jon Solomon
Editorial Director, Sports & Society Program
The Aspen Institute

Washington, DC, September 12, 2018 – A new white paper released today by the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute takes measure of recent developments in football and assesses the implications of the game moving away from tackle football as the traditional form of playing the game before high school. The report comes on the heels of recent data showing that flag has surpassed tackle as the most popular form of play for children, and draws on insights shared in January as part of its quarterly Future of Sports series, when the future of football was explored with a diverse set of panelists.

The white paper is available to read here:

The topic is approached from five angles, examining how adopting flag football as the standard might impact public health, youth participation, “Friday Night Lights” high school football, the wider football industry, and our values. The paper concludes that benefits will be derived by most stakeholders, including children.

Given that finding, the report also makes key recommendations:

  • Youth football organizations shift to a standard of flag football before age 14.
  • Children practice the fundamentals of blocking, tackling, and hitting in a controlled, safe manner at age 12, to prepare interested students for high school football.
  • Non-game tackling should be minimized in high school and college football, using the training methods of the Dartmouth College football team as an example of best practice.
  • The wider football industry expand its flag football offerings for individuals who wish to continue in the sport without transitioning to tackle football.

The report is co-authored by two national award-winning journalists at the program, Tom Farrey, executive director, and Jon Solomon, editorial director. It comes at a critical time for youth and high school football, as student and parent concerns about the safety of the sport have contributed to declining participation in tackle football in recent years. High school tackle football participation has declined 7 percent since 2009, and it is down at the youth level as well. Similarly, medical research on how repetitive tackling can impact the brain is shifting public opinion: a 2016 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.

“We hope this paper provides the necessary thought leadership to advance the game of football, helping parents, sport leaders, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders make reasoned and ethical decisions about improving the delivery of the game for youth, our society’s most valuable resource,” said Farrey, co-author of the report.

Many panelists at the January 2018 Future of Sports event shared insights now featured in the report. Participants included Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Center at Boston University; Scott Hallenbeck, executive director, USA Football; Chris Borland and Domonique Foxworth, former NFL players; Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth College coach; Jennifer Brown-Lerner, policy manager for the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, and mother of a grade-school boy who plays football; Tom Green, Eleanor Roosevelt High School (Md.) coach; and Dr. Andrew Peterson, representing the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their expertise is supplemented by a post-event survey that was distributed to attendees and members of the public for this white paper.

Note: A recording of the event, Future of Football: Reimagining the Game’s Pipeline, is available here:

The mission of the Sports & Society program is to convene leaders, foster dialogue, and inspire solutions that help sport serve the public interest, with a focus on the development of healthy children and communities. The program provides a venue for thought leadership where knowledge can be deepened and breakthrough strategies explored on a range of issues. Its signature initiatives are Project Play and Future of Sports.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit



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