BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — More children are playing flag football as tackle football is becoming less and less popular among families due to concussions and neck injuries.

CBS2’s Esha Ray reported a USA Football study found that more young athletes are choosing flag football over tackle. In the past season, flag football participation went up 10.5 percent among 15- to 18-year-olds, compared to just 2.5 percent for tackle.

Jeff Boucher, executive director of the American Instructional Football League, said there’s many explanations, with one of them being a concern for safety.

“There are a lot of parents whose kids never take to the field because of the negative publicity on the head injuries, so doing flag football is a fantastic way to experience the game of football,” Boucher said.

One of those children who switched from tackle to flag football is fifth-grader DJ Watkins. He stopped playing tackle football three years ago.

“Some kids didn’t have helmets. When we were like three weeks in, we didn’t have helmets and they were unprepared,” DJ said.

DJ started playing flag football during the offseason to condition his body, but it felt more comfortable without the physical contact, so he stuck with it. DJ’s dad coaches his team on the Bergen County League.

“I think the advantages with flag is everyone gets to touch the ball,” Derrick Watkins said. “It’s more about skills. It’s more about the development.”

DJ said he might go back to tackle football when he gets older, but he’s just focusing on getting to the flag playoffs right now.

There’s no tackling in flag football, so players don’t have to worry about getting pummeled by their opponents. Instead, they focus on speed, agility and endurance.

However, Drew Gibbs, Ramapo High School’s football coach, said kids can get the same results playing tackle, and the lessons they learn are invaluable, even if there may be injuries.

“I think the benefits the young man gets far outweigh the risks,” Gibbs said. “I think there are some risks, but as I said, I think we’re doing an awful lot to make the game safer and safer.”

DJ’s league in Bergen County is part of the American Instructional Football League, one of dozens of teams run by the organization across the country.

Last month, Pop Warner eliminated kickoffs in an effort to ensure the safety of its young players.


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