When you think of American football, you think of the NFL or the NCAA. These are the highest tiers of the game at their respective level. A common theme of both? Neither have a female equivalent.
The sport falls well short of the standards set by others in terms of the development of its women’s game. It does have a surging solution to its problems however, and that is flag football.
Flag football changing the sport for the better
Flag football is the sport’s non-contact equivalent. Leaving behind the hard hits and protective gear, it welcomes creativity and skill with much less risk. More importantly, it is a game that women of all ages and abilities can take part in.
One woman at the heart of all things flag football is Phoebe Schecter. Recently nominated for the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Changemaker award, and featuring regularly on Sky Sports NFL, she has been a driving force behind women’s inclusivity in the sport.
Schecter is a global ambassador for NFL Flag, as well as a member of the International Federation of American Football’s (IFAF) Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee.
The Sports Gazette caught up with Schecter to discuss her career and her role in flag football’s success.
Breaking the barriers
Schecter was Britain’s first ever female coach to work in the NFL, working with the Buffalo Bills between 2017-18. She was keen to ensure that it would lead to others following in her footsteps.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you are the first. If you don’t have somebody to come and be able to have that same experience and be able to build on that, then I don’t feel like I’ll have done my job.”
Since then, she has also become Women’s Development Officer for the British American Football Coaches Association (BAFCA) and Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the British American Football Association (BAFA). As the metaphor goes, Schecter has walked so others can run.
Schecter’s passion for the sport is infectious, and this is what drives her to be a positive influence for young girls and women looking to get into American football.
“I love what I do, and I share my passion with as many people as possible. I don’t really think of it in the mindset of being a role model, but if that kind of contagious energy rubs off on other people, then being a role model just becomes a by-product of that.”
Is flag the new gateway to American football?
The contact game is incredibly physical. With concussions at the forefront of media attention, flag football is becoming a more appealing alternative for parents and children alike.
“Flag is a really great opportunity to get around the sport, just to see if you even like it. You might not like it if you’re afraid of being hit by someone, but you don’t have that fear here.”
Even if you wanted to take up the contact sport at a later stage, you are well set up by playing flag.
“It ultimately teaches you the fundamentals of football: catching, throwing, hand eye coordination and running backwards. How many sports do you learn to run backwards in?”
Flying the flag for women’s inclusivity
In a defining moment for the sport, it was recently announced that flag football would be included at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games. It will take centre stage over its contact variant for the first time ever.
“Flag football has been an incredibly inclusive sport for young women. A lot of the push was originally from a partnership between the NFL and Nike, who came together to get all the states in the US to approve flag football as a high school sport.
“It would be like all of our secondary schools having flag football, but just for women!”
The NFL has ensured that all 32 of its teams place flag football as one of their core community commitments, and teams like the Broncos, Jets and Falcons are already making great strides. It is not just them, however.
“When you look at the whole Olympic process, it is everybody day to day who are going to practice, the ones that are pushing to build the women’s game that have made it happen.”
A level playing field
Flag football will play a large part of the future for American football. It is giving boys and girls an equal opportunity to flourish in the sport where the contact game has failed.
“One of the things I love is that 40% of the girls that are playing flag football now (in London), have never played any sport before.
“I find especially for our young ones, the girls really take to the opportunity to take on those leadership roles. There is no pre-existing ‘hey I’ve come from a football academy that I have been at since I was four.’ No, everyone has the right to be great at this.”
What next for flag football and its Olympics debut?
After its acceptance in the Olympic games, the real work has just begun, and Schecter is excited for the challenge.
“It’s amazing that we got this far. However, now it is all about the 5-year plan for the Olympics. For every country that is represented, you have to really work out the finer details and make sure every country has the right infrastructure to compete at the Olympics.”
It is a brilliant time to be involved in the sport, as flag football has the chance to shine on the biggest stage of all. The best is yet to come for the game, as it looks to expand far and wide ahead of its Olympic debut.
One thing is for sure. Young women will look at the legacy Schecter has set and think: I want to be like her.