It’s nearly game time on an early Saturday afternoon, so 17-year-old Alexis Ervin drops her earrings in the cupped hand of a burly, bearded coach and pulls on her helmet.
a 5-foot-3 cheerleader-turned-running back, warms up with her teammates.
a junior power forward for the Mooresville (Ind.) High School basketball team, lines up with her two younger sisters to do something they couldn’t until recently: play tackle football with other girls.
“If you have a love of the sport, I think everybody should have an opportunity to play it,” Elise says before a recent game.
This is Indiana Girls Tackle Football, a four-team league here, about 20 miles southwest of Indianapolis. Now in its second season, the league is part of a small but striking trend: As boys’ football participation declines amid worries about concussions, girls are joining their own leagues.
Football is the most popular U.S. high school sport by far, and it remains overwhelmingly male. But the number of girls playing on boys’ high school football teams nearly doubled in the past decade to more than 2,000 nationwide, while the number of boys playing football dropped 4%. And the sport is seeing recent growth in leagues for women and girls.
A recreational girls tackle football league in Utah boasted 210 players in its third season last spring. A handful of those players and their parents are suing three Salt Lake City-area school districts and the Utah High School Activities Association. They want them to comply with a federal gender-equity law by creating high school football teams for girls.
Photos: Girls on the Gridiron
A look at a day on the field with Indiana Girls Tackle Football, a youth league outside Indianapolis
Many U.S. girls grow up watching football on TV, playing touch football with brothers and rooting for their teams. More than 1 million high school boys play football, nearly equal to the gap between the number of male and female athletes in high school.
“It’s like school districts are running 31 flavors and their very most popular flavor, they will not sell to girls,” says
one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
A lawyer representing the Utah High School Activities Association says it hasn’t filed a response to the lawsuit but that the association plans to oppose it.
Chad Oldham, president of Indiana’s Morris Cohen Mooresville Junior Football League, got the idea to start a girls league within the organization after his daughter Emily was upset that her parents wouldn’t let her play football with boys. Mr. Oldham discovered the Utah girls league through a Google search and began asking girls in and around Mooresville if they’d like to play in their own league. Many said yes.
Mr. Oldham consulted the Utah league and crafted modified rules. The Indiana girls play shorter games (32 minutes instead of 60) on a shorter field (60 yards plus an end zone, instead of 100). Eight players on a side—or six or seven, depending on turnout—play rather than the typical 11. There are no kickoffs or punts, a move to curb high-speed collisions.
The girls play in two divisions, one for fifth-to-eighth graders and one for high school-age girls, of two teams each. One of the league sponsors is Tabby’s Shear Designs, a hair salon. A few dozen parents and friends watch from low metal bleachers. Players play multiple positions, sometimes switching teams from week to week, so games feel like scrimmages. It’s not uncommon for opposing sides to high-five after a score.
But this is still a full-contact sport. On one play Alyssa Ford, the former cheerleader, runs the ball and a defender bear-hugs and slams her to the turf. She lies on her back for a few seconds while all players lower to one knee. She pops up, a teammate runs the ball in for a touchdown and Alyssa follows with a short run in for an extra point. After the game she shrugs and says the hard tackle “knocked the wind out of me.”
a professor of orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University, acknowledges that cutting out kickoffs and punts and having fewer players on the field could mitigate football’s dangers. But he says risks remain, especially on a smaller field.
“It naturally makes sense to me that if you had a girls football league, that they would have a higher risk of concussion than boys,” Dr. Hsu says.
He led a recent nationwide study of nine high school sports that found athletes in girls soccer had a higher rate of concussions than male football players. Contributing factors could be girls’ weaker neck muscles and a greater likelihood that girls would take the step of reporting concussion symptoms, Dr. Hsu says.
Despite a drumbeat of public caution about football, girls’ and women’s interest in all forms of the sport is rising. An adult league called the Women’s Football Alliance has 65 teams in 30 states, Washington, D.C. and Canada. More than 11,000 girls played high school flag football last school year, an 80% surge from five years earlier. A video of high school quarterback Holly Neher went viral this month after she became what’s thought to be the first girl to throw a touchdown pass in a Florida varsity tackle football game.
Organizers in Arizona are working to launch a girls football league, and Mr. Oldham says he’s heard of interest in starting girls leagues in other states. He’s preparing a team of Indiana girls to play a girls team from Winnipeg, Manitoba, later this fall.
The Utah girls league launched in 2015, propelled by
who at age 9 starred in a viral video tearing through defenses in a boys football league. Her father, Brent, and a former women’s football player named
organized the girls teams. “I hung up my pads to start this league,” says Ms. Sacco, its president.
Sam, now a 14-year-old freshman, opted to play soccer this fall at Herriman (Utah) High School. At 4-foot-11, “I would get destroyed” playing high school football against boys, she says. But the girls tackle league is getting more competitive. “I think that by the time I graduate, it’s going to be a very popular thing,” she says.
Write to Rachel Bachman at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
Alexis Irving participates in Indiana Girls Tackle Football. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified her as
(Sept. 5, 2017)