A week ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to include flag football – a safer and more inclusive version of our favourite sport – in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Other sports, including lacrosse and squash, were also added for the first time.
A game for all
As a non-contact sport played over two 20-minute halves, flag football is appealing and accessible to kids (sometimes in mixed teams) and women, as well as men, and not just in the United States. According to the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the global governing body, around 20 million people in more than 100 countries play the game so on the face of it, it’s a viable Olympic event.
Participation rates are rising fast, and among girls in particular. Around 475,000 girls aged under 17 played last year, up 63% since 2019, and in fact, women are a key part of flag football’s growth. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), in partnership with the NFL, sanctioned flag football as an official varsity sport for female students in 2020 and girls’ high schools in California have just started their first season.
As flag football is seen as the entry point to the sport, it’s currently got a bit of a recreational, collegiate and amateur reputation to overcome. But the semi-pro American Flag Football League will add a men’s professional division for the first time in 2024 and the American Flag Football League’s new Women’s Division has pay equity with the men. And we mustn’t forget, we have a few years before they need truly elite athletes capable of starring on a global stage.
Small squads, big fun
Another reason the IOC were more amenable to the flag/touch version of American football being part of LA28 is the small team sizes. Squads are made up of 12 players, with five on the field at any given time, which will help the IOC meet its own cap on the number of athletes at the Summer Games.
Like rugby sevens, it’s a fast, high-scoring style of the game. There are mainly quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs, so there are passes and catches and route-running as normal. But it’s also full of quick spins and sharp turns and cuts as the ball carrier tries to prevent their opponents from pulling the three fabric ‘flags’ from their belts.
Support from the NFL
The NFL has long backed flag football as a way to push the global appeal of the sport in general. And having it played at the Olympics in their own back yard – presumably at venues like SoFi Stadium, home to the Chargers and Rams – is a massive coup, not to mention a huge marketing opportunity. The NFL even changed the format of its annual Pro Bowl to include three seven-a-side flag football matches last year. At the time, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey told ESPN: “I definitely don’t need to take more hits so I’m a proponent.” Given the inherent injury risks, you can understand the appeal of the touch version.
USA Football, which oversees all formats of the sport in the United States, has been working on getting football into the Olympics since it was formed nearly 20 years ago. But its CEO, Scott Hallenbeck, believes that this wouldn’t be happening at all without the support of Roger Goodell and the owners of the 32 NFL franchises.
There will be men’s and women’s disciplines at the Summer Games in 2028, and the chances are, the best players from the national flag football teams will be involved. It was a demonstration sport at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where the United States won men’s gold and Mexico defeated the hosts in the women’s final. But Hallenbeck has also said he’s “extremely interested and excited” about the possibility of including NFL players on Olympic rosters.
All hail the US Dream Team
Sure, there are plenty of details to work out with the league and the NFL Players Association so it remains to be seen as to whether it’s going to be feasible. But surely the opportunity to represent their country presents a new opportunity for current NFL players – or even recently retired ones – who fancy striving for a new pinnacle of sporting achievement.
Imagine Team USA’s dream lineup if it were drawn purely from the ranks of the NFL today. Patrick Mahomes; Tyreek Hill; Justin Jefferson; Ja’Marr Chase; Christian McCaffrey; Travis Kelce; Aaron Donald; Nick Bosa; Myles Garrett; Micah Parsons; Patrick Surtain; Sauce Gardner. Or maybe the team taps into the stars of the collegiate game, or even the XFL?
Obviously, if the US Olympic men’s team included NFL players, then they’d romp home to gold without breaking sweat. Twitter is already full of people imagining Tyreek going nuclear while being marked by an Iranian bus driver. The possibilities are yet to be ironed out but Tyreek himself, as well as recently retired tight end Rob Gronkowski, have already thrown their hats into the ring and declared their interest.
Who’s coming second?
More likely, both men’s and women’s teams would comprise players who already specialise in flag football. But for a bit of fun, let’s just say the NFL Players Association get on board and the men’s teams are awash with today’s NFL stars. Who might stand alongside the USA during the medal ceremony? Here are a few contenders who might not give the host nation a run for their money but might compete for silver and bronze:
As well as being able to draw on additional players from the Canadian Football League, about 25 Canadian-born players currently ply their trade in the NFL. Team Canada could have a decent shot at silver if it could call on the likes of Miami’s Chase Claypool and Jevon Holland, the Chargers’ Josh Palmer and Panthers RB Chuba Hubbard.
Many a player born in Nigeria has made his way to the NFL. Africa’s powerhouse in the sport could make a surprise bid for a place on the medal rostrum if it employed the Lions’ Julian and Romeo Okwara, Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai, Jacksonville linebacker Foyesade Oloukun and Steelers OT Chukwuma Okorafor, not to mention the “three Davids”: Njoku (Browns), Ojabo (Ravens) and Onyemata (Saints).
With some of them switching codes from rugby, the Aussies have about 10 NFL players at the moment. Admittedly, several – like the Seahawks’ Michael Dickson and the Niners’ Mitch Wishnowksy – are punters, so they might not be much use(!) but I reckon Baltimore’s Daniel Faalele and the Eagles’ Jordan Mailata would be hard to get past on a small field.
As seen by the introduction of International Series games in the country, the popularity of football in Germany is massive – and still growing. Imagine an Olympic tournament, held in the US, with noisy German fans getting behind their team of German-born players such as the St. Brown brothers, Amon-Ra (Lions) and Equanimeous (Bears).
Even if they weren’t in the hunt of medals, would Cleveland’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah fancy turning out for Ghana? Would we see the Chiefs’ George Karlaftis represent Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics? Could John Metchie swap his Texans jersey for Taiwan, or sack monster Danielle Hunter switch from the purple of Minnesota for the green and gold of his native Jamaica? And what about Efe Obada repping Team GB colours?
It’s all fanciful stuff for now but the bottom line is that the IOC’s decision to include flag football in the 2028 Olympics represents an unprecedented opportunity to grow the game globally. It’ll be a slow burn but I’ll be watching developments with interest.