Girls’ Flag Football Offers a Path to College, and Olympic Dreams

Honesty Butler was not planning to go to college, let alone leave her home state of New York. She loved art class, but hated math and history. Art school was too expensive, so she began to give up on the idea of higher education entirely.

But one day her social studies teacher at Binghamton High School told her he was coaching flag football, which New York State had just begun offering as a varsity sport, and asked if she might be interested in joining the team.

Butler had never played a team sport, beyond a brief stint on the track team, but from the first practice, she was hooked. Suddenly, she had an outlet for her competitive drive. She received positive reinforcement at school as her team started winning games. The team had a G.P.A. requirement, so Butler was suddenly motivated to keep her grades up — even in math.

Now, Butler, 19, is more than 1,200 miles from home in Fort Scott, Kan., where she is preparing for her second season playing collegiate flag football at Fort Scott Community College.

Flag football, a version of the sport in which players pull colorful flags from belts around their opponents’ waists instead of tackling them to stop play, has been rapidly growing in popularity. Since it is strictly no-contact, it emphasizes quickness and accuracy over physicality.

While the sport is played by both men and women, the style of play favors female athletes. It gives girls a unique opportunity to play football, which has long been considered a quintessentially — and exclusively — male sport.

“For many years, it was sort of, you know, girls don’t play football, right? That sort of mentality,” said Scott Hallenbeck, the chief executive of U.S.A. Football, the governing body for both tackle and flag football. “All of us in football, and hopefully society at large, recognize that this is a critical and incredible opportunity to be inclusive.”

Last year, New York became the eighth state to offer girls’ flag football as a varsity sport, with teams around the state set to compete for their first state championship next spring. The announcement last month that flag football would become an Olympic sport in 2028 further accentuated the sport’s rise.

“A lot of people overlook flag football, and the fact that it’ll be in the Olympics soon is even better,” Butler said. “They can see how the sport is played, and not judge it because it’s played by women.”

Olympic flag football will be offered in both men’s and women’s disciplines, but the men’s team could be made up of N.F.L. athletes. For women, the Olympics will be a chance to compete on a level much higher than the current high school and college contests. For those who are just now joining high school varsity teams, the path forward in the sport is clearer than ever.

During New York’s first season of girls’ flag football, in spring 2022, there were 51 varsity-level teams across the state, with funding support from the local N.F.L. teams — the Jets, Giants and Bills.

In the coming season, which starts in March, there will be 180 schools competing, according to Robert Zayas, the executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

Zayas said flag football had been added as an option in hopes of engaging students who were not interested in the typical offerings.

“We know when kids are involved in their school community, they do better in school,” Zayas said. “High school sports do so many things for so many kids, but they provide an immediate sense of belonging for these students who are participating.”

In New York City, where public high school teams play in a separate league from the rest of the state, flag football has been offered for roughly a decade. But Bashkim Pelinkovic, the girls’ flag football coach at Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island, said the sport’s popularity had ballooned in recent years.

When the team first started, about 30 girls tried out. Two years ago, the same year the rest of the state began competing, 100 girls showed up to the tryouts.

One of the players present was Olivia Rijo, 17, a senior who has played on the team all four years of high school. She is hoping to attend one of the more than a dozen colleges that offer flag football — and make it to the Olympics.

Rijo has played on the U.S. national team’s squads for girls under 15 and under 17, and plans to try out for the women’s national team in February. She said she cried when she found out flag football would be an Olympic sport.

“It was one of the best moments of my life,” Rijo said. “It broke my heart that no matter how much effort I put in, I couldn’t go anywhere with it. But the Olympics gives us something to work for.”

And while Rijo started playing flag football in middle school, Hallenbeck said that high school girls who are elite athletes in other sports like soccer, volleyball or basketball are now relishing the opportunity to compete in a game they grew up watching but were rarely able to play.

Payton Parliament, 16, a junior at Beekmantown High School in the northeast corner of the state, is only 18 months younger than her brother, Nathan, a senior and the starting quarterback of the school’s tackle football team.

She was about four years old when she tagged along to her brother’s first flag football game. From that day, Parliament played on his flag football team — he was the quarterback, and she was his go-to wide receiver.

Parliament plays soccer, basketball and softball, but once her school started offering flag football, she knew she had to sign up. On the girls’ team, she moved from wide receiver to quarterback, and is now chasing her brother’s throwing record, the best in town history.

“I always wanted to be like him, even though I was a girl,” Parliament said. “I wanted to prove to people that I could be like a boy and do those great things.”

This coming spring, she expects an intense competition for the first state championship. More girls have joined the Beekmantown team, and other schools in the area have added teams.

“Girls saw how competitive it was and how much joy we’re getting out of it,” Parliament said.

Butler is also looking forward to more competition. She hopes to transfer to a four-year college next year, which would mean playing in a higher division.

She’s still getting used to the Kansas weather, the demands of college classes and being far from home, but she knows now that she is up to the challenge.

“It surprised me and my whole family,” Butler said of her move to college. “I’m really proud of myself. I never thought that I would be this far from home.”