For the first time in the event’s history, Sunday’s Pro Bowl in Las Vegas will be a flag football game – a nod to players who have grown increasingly unwilling to subject their bodies to injury in an otherwise meaningless contest.

The game will actually be the culminating event of a series of skill competitions held throughout the weekend.

The origin of both “touch” and “flag” football date back to the early and mid 1900s, respectively, and both versions came out of a desire to make an undeniably physical game safer.

Tackle football was almost banned in America in the early 1900s after its brutality on the college gridiron resulted in numerous deaths. In 1897 alone, at least eight collegians died and hundreds more were seriously injured. Calls increased to cancel the sport altogether, but President Teddy Roosevelt objected.

“I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” he told an audience at the White House. “I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”

Rather than do away with the game, President Roosevelt suggested it be reformed. Convening representatives from top colleges at the White House, he urged coaches to make the sport less violent. It proved to be a difficult negotiation, but they all eventually agreed.

A “touch” version of the game came out of this concern for increased safety. James A. “Doc” Gibson, a chemistry lecturer and assistant coach at the University of Missouri, is credited with establishing the rules.

“Flag” football is believed to have come out of Fort Meade in Florida during World War II. In an effort to reduce the risk of injuries that set back the war effort, soldiers began wearing flags while playing football. Less contact meant far fewer injuries.

Today, flag football is primarily a youth-oriented sport, and it’s never been more popular. Over 1.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 12 play flag football in America.

The increase is largely attributed to parents looking for a safer alternative to tackle football. Of the one million children injured in sporting activities that resulted in a trip to the emergency room in 2021, over 110,000 of the kids were playing tackle football. Naturally, not all injuries are equal. A broken finger is less worrisome than a concussion – but it’s understandable that moms and dads are hoping to minimize those ailments that threaten the potentiality of long-lasting consequences.

As someone who has coached flag football for years, I can attest that the sport is great fun, and that the kids seem to have nearly as much enjoyment and satisfaction pulling a flag as they do drilling a fellow kid into ground. I might be exaggerating that a bit, but I can say with confidence that the kid with the ball (as well as his parents) much prefer the former.

Fair warning, though, to newbies – watch for kids who deceptively and illegally wrap their flags in a way to reduce the risk of them being pulled at all. One of our boys yanked another kid’s illegally attached flag so hard that he picked the boy off the ground. The gig was up.

Even today’s most traditional football parents might find Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalier approach to the acceptance of battering on the field just shy of death a bit excessive – but debate and discussion over the rise of flag and the decline of tackle football will surely increase. For now, though, will the spectacle of the novelty of watching NFL all-stars on Sunday pull flags generate any interest? Will anyone illegally tuck their flag … or is Tom Brady not playing?