Sports

More Girls Are Playing Football. Is That Progress?

More girls are playing high school football, even as the sport draws fewer participants overall in an injury-conscious era.

As part of Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, the National Football League organized its third Women’s Summit for Friday “to discuss how football and the broader sports world can continue to support the advancement of women on and off the field,” said Kamran Mumtaz, an N.F.L. spokesman.

The sport remains male-dominated, with no women playing in the N.F.L. and few on college teams. But some high school girls, playing on teams of boys, are gaining attention for their achievements.

For example, last fall, the high school quarterback Holly Neher threw a touchdown pass in Florida, making headlines as the first girl known to do so in state history.

ADVERTISEMENT

And K-Lani Nava, a kicker, became the first girl in Texas to score points in a high school state championship game.

But as a growing body of research suggests that youth tackle football is harmful to children’s brains, not everyone is cheering.

Breaking big stories requires support.

Subscribe to The New York Times
“Why bring girls into it? We should be taking the boys out of it,” said Dr. Robert Stern, director of clinical research for Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, which studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. “It doesn’t make sense to expose our children to repetitive head impacts during periods of incredible maturation of the most important organ in our body, the brain.”

The number of girls playing tackle football is still low compared to boys — of the 225,000 athletes in Pop Warner youth football programs, for example, just 1,100 are girls. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, of the 5.5 million Americans who report playing tackle football, 596,000 — or 10.9 percent — are female.

It is notable that more girls want to play even as annual survey by the National Association of State High School Federations reported that participation in high school football went down 3.5 percent over the past five years.

ADVERTISEMENT

Valerie Palmer-Mehta, a professor of communication at Oakland University whose work focuses on women and rhetoric, said the change is evidence of larger cultural shifts.

“We can thank a constellation of cultural forces for women’s involvement in football today, from Title IX to the women’s movement, to strong female athletes who have persisted in pursuing their athletic dreams despite a lack of broader cultural support,” Dr. Palmer-Mehta said.

Nava at a practice in Strawn, Tex. More girls are playing high school football, even as overall participation is decreasing.
Credit
Evan Ren/The Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press

Image
Nava at a practice in Strawn, Tex. More girls are playing high school football, even as overall participation is decreasing.CreditEvan Ren/The Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press
Team sports like football provide well established social, physical and psychological benefits. But a Boston University study released last year found that kids who played tackle football before age 12 may be at higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems later in life. Another study took MRIs of the brains of kids before and after a single season of tackle football, removing from the study anyone who had a diagnosable concussion. Those researchers found that there was a change in the brain’s white matter after just one season of play. And a study published in January in the journal Brain found the kind of changes typical of C.T.E. in the brains of four teenage athletes who had died after impact injuries.

Dr. Stern said that it is important to understand that the real danger for C.T.E. is not necessarily concussions, but subconcussive impacts. That is, repeated hitting is damaging — even if it doesn’t cause a concussion.

Crystal Sacco, league president and co-founder of Utah Girls Tackle Football, which started in 2015 and is expecting about 400 girls this season, said she doesn’t hear many concerns from parents about their daughters playing tackle football.

“I think they feel safe because they’re playing against other girls,” she said. And Dr. Stern noted that it is not possible to say whether the research — which looked only at boys — can be generalized to include girls because in an all-girls league, the force of the hits could be different.

More girls are playing high school football, even as the sport draws fewer participants overall in an injury-conscious era.

As part of Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, the National Football League organized its third Women’s Summit for Friday “to discuss how football and the broader sports world can continue to support the advancement of women on and off the field,” said Kamran Mumtaz, an N.F.L. spokesman.

The sport remains male-dominated, with no women playing in the N.F.L. and few on college teams. But some high school girls, playing on teams of boys, are gaining attention for their achievements.

For example, last fall, the high school quarterback Holly Neher threw a touchdown pass in Florida, making headlines as the first girl known to do so in state history.

ADVERTISEMENT

And K-Lani Nava, a kicker, became the first girl in Texas to score points in a high school state championship game.

But as a growing body of research suggests that youth tackle football is harmful to children’s brains, not everyone is cheering.

Breaking big stories requires support.

Subscribe to The New York Times
“Why bring girls into it? We should be taking the boys out of it,” said Dr. Robert Stern, director of clinical research for Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, which studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. “It doesn’t make sense to expose our children to repetitive head impacts during periods of incredible maturation of the most important organ in our body, the brain.”

The number of girls playing tackle football is still low compared to boys — of the 225,000 athletes in Pop Warner youth football programs, for example, just 1,100 are girls. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, of the 5.5 million Americans who report playing tackle football, 596,000 — or 10.9 percent — are female.

It is notable that more girls want to play even as annual survey by the National Association of State High School Federations reported that participation in high school football went down 3.5 percent over the past five years.

ADVERTISEMENT

Valerie Palmer-Mehta, a professor of communication at Oakland University whose work focuses on women and rhetoric, said the change is evidence of larger cultural shifts.

“We can thank a constellation of cultural forces for women’s involvement in football today, from Title IX to the women’s movement, to strong female athletes who have persisted in pursuing their athletic dreams despite a lack of broader cultural support,” Dr. Palmer-Mehta said.

Nava at a practice in Strawn, Tex. More girls are playing high school football, even as overall participation is decreasing.
Credit
Evan Ren/The Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press

Image
Nava at a practice in Strawn, Tex. More girls are playing high school football, even as overall participation is decreasing.CreditEvan Ren/The Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press
Team sports like football provide well established social, physical and psychological benefits. But a Boston University study released last year found that kids who played tackle football before age 12 may be at higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems later in life. Another study took MRIs of the brains of kids before and after a single season of tackle football, removing from the study anyone who had a diagnosable concussion. Those researchers found that there was a change in the brain’s white matter after just one season of play. And a study published in January in the journal Brain found the kind of changes typical of C.T.E. in the brains of four teenage athletes who had died after impact injuries.

Dr. Stern said that it is important to understand that the real danger for C.T.E. is not necessarily concussions, but subconcussive impacts. That is, repeated hitting is damaging — even if it doesn’t cause a concussion.

Crystal Sacco, league president and co-founder of Utah Girls Tackle Football, which started in 2015 and is expecting about 400 girls this season, said she doesn’t hear many concerns from parents about their daughters playing tackle football.

“I think they feel safe because they’re playing against other girls,” she said. And Dr. Stern noted that it is not possible to say whether the research — which looked only at boys — can be generalized to include girls because in an all-girls league, the force of the hits could be different.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *