Pulling The Flag

A Brief History of Women’s Flag

As Aristotle once said: “If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”

In this light, then, I thought it would be appropriate to fully explore the history of football; when it came about, how it came about, how it has evolved into flag football, and how the women’s game has emerged. By fossicking in its origins, I hope to not only unravel flag’s history but also further explore the development of Women’s Flag Football.

In 1843, a young student named William Webb Ellis at Rugby school in England – seemingly tired and arguably frustrated by the restrictions placed on him during a traditional game of association football – picked up the ball and ran with it down the field. Although Ellis had knowingly violated the main rule of football – that it is illegal to touch the ball with one’s hands – he had also unexpectedly inspired his fellow students and staff by igniting an idea: What if you were allowed to run with the ball? This brought about the game that we now know as rugby.

Rugby caught on quickly and grew rapidly in popularity. It wasn’t long before schools, private clubs and leagues began to develop. It then eventually made its way out of the UK and into Canada.

So what has rugby got to do with American football? Well, by 1874, Harvard and the Canadian college, McGill, faced each other in their first game of Rugby. In 1876, the representatives from Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale met to discuss further adaptations of the rules, such meeting became known as the Massasoit Convention. It was their adjustments that paved the way for American football in both America and Canada, though still minus the protective head-wear and pads!


The Rutgers College football team of 1882, wearing uniforms typical of the period

Improvements continued to be made in order to make it into the sport we know today. But the most important change was initiated after concerns were raised in the 1900’s by then-United States president Theodore Roosevelt. He stressed that the game needed to made safer, as 18 people were reportedly killed playing the sport by 1905, with many more significantly injured. It was here that modern American football was born. However, some men never stopped playing the old way, without helmets and shoulder pads. This was called touch football, and marks the beginning of flag football!

Touch football grew in popularity, and was seen on the military bases in the early 1940’s as a recreational sport for military personnel. Recreational leagues developed in the late 40’s early 50’s. By the 1950’s and 60’s the media started covering American football and, as a result, touch football was really kicking off. It allowed the public to play a variation of the sport with little equipment needed, at a fraction of the cost. Celebrities such as the Kennedys and even Elvis Presley were keen players of the sport!


He could hold a note but he couldn’t hold a football! Pic by Barney Sellers

American football then found its way into the UK, with the first teams open to British players in 1983. Out of this, flag football teams began to emerge and soon women’s teams started to develop, acting as an independent sport and a good pathway into American football. One of the first flag football teams on record, perhaps arguably the first, was the Leicester Panthers supporters club in 1998.

The early accomplishments in the fledgling discipline are as follows. Soon to appear at a pub quiz near you.

  • First player Gemma Eaton, 1998 (Leicester)
  • Finals MVP in 2002 was Lisa Eaton, scoring on a pick-six to seal the game for Leicester Eagles
  • GB captain Lisa Eaton – cadet 2001
  • 2002 Tracey Pennock is HC for GB cadets
  • Woodham Lasses 2004-6, play in BAFA youth league
  • In 2010, the Coventry Jets win the youth final with six girls on squad including three starters. Hannah Russell-Yarde gets MVP
  • First Uni game between Warwick and Coventry University in 2010
  • Both teams had warm-up games v Coventry Jets women
  • First BAFA tournament in 2013
  • The Elite in 2013
  • Opal series 2013
  • Opal series 2014 (starting October 2014)

Even though it is evident from this that women’s flag football has come a long way already, it could really benefit from having the support that American football did in the 40’s and 50’s. It needs a giant leap in participation, it needs the support of media coverage and it needs the role model, female athletes that women can look up to.

It is has been made clearer to me now more than ever that – from looking back at its history – we should continue to develop and spread our knowledge of the sport, so that it too will, one day, have the sporting buzz and excitement that it deserves!

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