(NewsNation) — Football, one of America’s most popular sports, might a look a lot different in the future. Instead of the jarring hits many have grown accustomed to, kids and college athletes could go tackle-free as flag football is now being talked about as a safe alternative to the sport.
Flag football is set to be played for the first time next week at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where more than 36,000 athletes from around the world compete at sports not typically seen at the Olympics. That’s due in large part to backing from the NFL, which has become the sport’s biggest cheerleader.
“When I’ve been asked over the last 24 months, in particular, what does the next 100 years look like when you look at football, not professional football, it’s flag,” NFL executive Troy Vincent told The Associated Press. “It’s the inclusion and the true motto of ‘football for all.’ There is a place in flag football for all.”
So far, six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York — have sanctioned flag football as a varsity sport in high school, with 20 more states either interested or in the process of getting it sanctioned.
While the hard-hitting, sometimes violent nature of tackle football draws in many fans, those hits are taking a grim toll on the players.
Scientists have studied the brains of dozens of NFL players who have died after experiencing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a brain condition caused by repeated hits to the head, according to the Mayo Clinic. Even a small impact to the head can have an effect.
“We call those subconcussive impacts,” Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University School of Medicine, said. “And those are the kinds of impacts that are experienced by football players nearly every play of the game.”
Among the latest players found to have CTE is Demaryius Thomas, a wide receiver who played for the Denver Broncos and died last year at the age of 33. Doctors say CTE didn’t cause his death, but it may have contributed to the memory loss, paranoia and isolation that marked the last months of his life.
“There does seem to be an increase in risk with the longer you play football, but you don’t have to play that long to be at risk,” McKee said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.