Skip to main content

McElhaney: What the Atlanta Falcons are doing for girls football is vital for the future of women in sports

Letting girls love the game of football will never be wrong. The girls flag football movement in Georgia proves that. 

If I am remembering correctly, I was 11 years old when I told my dad I wanted to play football for him when I was older. He was my high school's head football coach at the time, and our lives ebbed and flowed as the football season did. I went to practice every day after school, watching from the sidelines or out the window of my dad's office if the weather was poor.

I told my dad I preferred to play linebacker or tight end for him. I was very specific. I liked those positions best, and thought I could play them well. Even at 11 years old, what I had was a desire to be around the game. What I didn't have at 11 years old was the size, speed, strength or Y chromosome you apparently needed to play the game. It's something I still don't have at 26 years old. By high school I was winning state championships in softball and thinking about attending the University of Georgia. I still loved football, and that desire to be around the game was still very much there. The reality was that I had to change course, though, if I wanted to continue being around it.

I had long since decided that as a young girl my role in football could never be actually playing the game. I could watch film and break it down with my dad. I could go to every single practice and every single game. I could even pursue a job that let me be around football every single day. I could love the game. I could not - however - play the game. Not the way I wanted to anyways.

The one time I did get to play was my eighth grade year in the annual powderpuff flag football game. I loved it. But it didn't love me. In the fourth quarter I was chop blocked (illegally I would like to point out) and broke my middle finger. One surgery, two screws and eight weeks of a basketball season missed later and I knew my football playing days were unfortunately behind me. (And in case you're wondering, yes, my middle finger is still crooked).

Images during the Girl’s Flag Football game at half-time against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, January 9, 2022. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)

I write all of this to ultimately say this: I was never given a real opportunity to love the game in the way the boys did. I had to love it differently. It's why even in 2022 and with years of experience I have men say to me that there's no way I could understand the complexities of the game because I never played it. How could I - a woman - love this game and possibly know anything about it? I didn't play.

Thanks in part to what the Atlanta Falcons are doing, there's about to be an entire generation of girls in the state of Georgia who won't have to hear that derogatory putdown any longer.

Over the last six years, the Falcons and owner Arthur Blank's foundation have worked to elevate girls flag football in the state of Georgia. What started as a grassroots movements then turned into a full blown sanctioned sport in the state in 2020, with Georgia becoming the fourth of six states to recognize girls flag football in this way.

And girls flag football isn't just surviving in Georgia, it's thriving, with 230 high schools and more than 4,600 players expected to participate throughout the state this fall. More so, now that girls' flag football is secure in Georgia, the Falcons organization is financially supporting Alabama and Montana to get the sport sanctioned in those states as well.

This is important for the next generation of women working in sports. I'm not saying every single girl participating in flag football this fall will grow up to be a football analyst, or coach, or salary cap cruncher, or even the first female general manager. What I am saying is that by presenting these girls with the opportunity to love the game in this way - by actively participating in it - you include them. By including them, you open doors for them to show you why they can love the game, too.

Every so often I get the chance to speak to young women in high school and college. Almost every single time I am asked about having a seat at the table as a woman covering a man's sport, and almost every time I have the same answer: Don't let anyone tell you that you don't deserve the seat you're in. You do. And you do simply because you love the game. That's enough. Many will try to tell you it's not enough, but it is.

You know what helps young girls know they're enough? When you actually give them the opportunity to play the game they love. You let them love it the way it is supposed to be loved, actively and passionately.

The Atlanta Falcons unveiled a new 30-foot dynamic wall display inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium dedicated to the trailblazers of high school girls flag football in the state of Georgia.

Related Content