Blank Foundation Funds Girls’ Flag Football

Blank Foundation Funds Girls’ Flag Football

The Blank Family Foundation has addressed the teen mental health crisis via funding recreational sports programs in rural areas.

As part of the Falcons’ now yearslong investment in promoting girls flag football, Mercedes-Benz Stadium recently hosted a showcase for some of the best high school players in the region // Photo Credit: Kaleigh Bauer
As part of the Falcons’ now yearslong investment in promoting girls flag football, Mercedes-Benz Stadium recently hosted a showcase for some of the best high school players in the region // Photo Credit: Kaleigh Bauer

Over the past half-decade, it’s been well documented how no corner of America has been immune from the teenage mental health crisis. But nowhere has the epidemic been more severe than in Montana, where – due to a confluence of devastating sociological factors — many teens grapple with barriers to mental health care.

Coincidentally, Atlanta Falcons principal owner Arthur Blank owns multiple ranches in Montana and has established a considerable footprint in the massive western state. Over the past few years, as the gravity of the aforementioned situation has come to light, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has earmarked grants to launch girls’ flag football programs in a dozen Montana high schools in an effort to provide teen girls with an opportunity to enjoy athletic competition that they would otherwise not have. This initiative marks the continuation of a now yearslong campaign by the Falcons to champion girls’ flag football throughout Montana high schools – one that has come on the heels of a successful push to spark interest in the sport among Georgia and Alabama high schoolers.

“Everywhere Arthur goes that he has a footprint, he loves to have a philanthropic presence,” explained Danielle Renner, Atlanta Falcons Community Relations Manager, when speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times earlier this month. “This is a great way to impact the mental health space out there. Montana, unfortunately, has one of the highest suicide rates for teenagers and we have really heard from girls out there who said flag football saved my life.”

Among the dozens of powerful Montana stories shared with Renner, two stand out. There was one young athlete who was devastated upon being unable to crack the girls’ volleyball team. Lacking direction and self-esteem, she was encouraged to try her hand at flag football; within weeks, she was flourishing on the gridiron and developed a new circle of friends. Then there was the case of another young Montanan, one who was very introverted and experiencing severe mental health issues and in need of a healthy outlet. Her athletic director also encouraged flag football. By season’s end, this young woman was the team’s starting quarterback and after having spent months dedicating her time toward something productive — honing her football skills behind the support of teammates/new friends — started feeling better emotionally.

“He [the athletic director] says to this day, it’s the best thing he’s ever done as an administrator,” noted Renner.

As alluded to earlier, the Falcons and Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s commitment to championing girls’ flag football did not originate in Montana. Back in 2017, the two entities noticed a disturbing pattern among amateur athletes in Georgia: By the time they reached high school, a disproportionate number of girls were dropping sports compared to their male counterparts. And for those female athletes interested in continuing their flag football careers beyond middle school, hardly any avenues were available to do so.

Subsequently, the Falcons and Blank’s foundation initiated talks with high school athletic departments in Gwinnett County to get programs up and running before branching out across the state. Eventually, after 19 schools initiated programs, Georgia became just the fourth state to recognize girls’ flag football as an official high school sport.

“There was an inequality when it came to offering sports for girls and boys in Georgia,” Renner went on. “We really wanted to make football accessible for all.”

After seeing how popular the sport grew in Georgia – and later Alabama – the Falcons committed themselves to expanding into Montana where so many young residents were in desperate need of a new diversion. But, as Renner is quick to point out, Montana, with its wintry climate, presented a unique challenge as most high school athletes were accustomed to participating in indoor sports, particularly volleyball and wrestling.

“We were shocked at the amount of interest that girls [in Montana] had,” said Renner when further detailing the cathartic effect flag football has had on the state’s teenage population. “People who played soccer, basketball, volleyball were coming out. But what was even better was girls who had never played a sport before came to try out, found a natural athletic ability for it, and have picked the game up so quickly. It’s really changed the trajectory of their course and their passions.”

As flag football has had such an indelible impact on thousands of girls across America in such a short amount of time, Blank’s foundation earlier this month promised grants to 42 more high schools across Georgia so they, too, could launch girls’ flag football programs. Meanwhile, 20 new Alabama high schools and 12 in Montana will also be receiving grants.

It’s never easy choosing which schools receive grants as there are countless ones that express interest in starting a program, but simply don’t have the financial wherewithal to put something in motion. Undoubtedly, the financial outlay to cover new equipment, uniforms, and facility rental can seem insurmountable. Meanwhile, in addition to the hefty financial investment, deft operational management is paramount to long-term sustainability.

“He [Blank] is very big on not just writing a check and saying, ‘OK, we’re good,’” explained Renner. “He’s big on, ‘How can we make an impact? How can we make that impact first-class and genuine? And how can we make sure that doesn’t go away in the years to come?’

“He is just so invested in the things that we do. He backs us 100 percent, not only financially, but just from the support, too. He’s seen the impact that it has had.”

In conjunction with the recent string of grants, the Atlanta Falcons High School Showcase in partnership with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Women’s Flag Finals Championship Game took place on May 9-10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the largest college showcase to date, more than 250 flag football players from Georgia and Alabama had a platform to display their skills in front of NCAA representatives and college coaches, some of whom were presenting scholarship opportunities for players talented and dedicated enough to pursue their passion at the collegiate level.

Even just a couple years earlier, a flag football scholarship would have been a pipe dream for the sport’s participants.

Added Renner, “It’s been amazing to see the growth.”

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