Left Field

Checkered Flag

Why flag football is America’s dirtiest college sport.

Paul Arnold is the best quarterback in college football history. What, you haven’t heard of Paul Arnold? Over his 10-year career, Arnold won four national championships for three different schools and was a nine-time All-American. And he didn’t just call the plays—he drew them up, too. The “Paul Arnold Offense,” an intricate system of quick passes and designed laterals, proved nearly impossible for defenses to slow down. Bruce Maurer, a former NFL official, says the QB/offensive guru reminded him of a hybrid of Roger Staubach and Bill Walsh. Maurer says, “There’d be times when your mouth would just drop open.”

“Once I started playing, I knew it was the gift I had,” says Arnold, now 35 and a practicing urologist in Florida. “The game came in slow motion. I knew how to win. I was able to read defenses and read the plays before they started.”

Arnold’s game was flag football, the slightly neutered version of the sport where defenders make tackles by pulling a flag that dangles from the offensive player’s waist. The stars of big-time college flag football mostly run, pass, and yank in anonymity, obscured by the sport’s image as an intramural pastime. But don’t be fooled: There are enough flagheads to support a glossy magazine that claims a circulation of 30,000. And though a secret to most, the University of New Orleans’ annual flag tournament—a combination Super Bowl/December Madness that crams more than 100 college teams into a five-day mega-event—packs more intrigue and scandal than an entire NCAA season.

You wouldn’t mistake the flag football title game for the BCS championship. This year’s men’s title game took place behind UNO’s Lakefront Arena on an 80-yard field separated into 20-yard zones by small orange cones. Most of the 100 or so partisans were other players, volunteers, or girlfriends toting golden retrievers. One player fashioned the No. 1 on his black T-shirt out of masking tape. The nods to big-game ambience—the scratchy PA blares jock jams during time-outs; nattily attired referees whistle the two-minute warning, which lasts for about five seconds—are more cute than awe-inspiring.

No player on the field this year could match Arnold’s dominance of the flag football record book. He first took the title at the University of Florida in 1989, beating his frat brothers in the finals. (“I defected,” Arnold admits. “I had a gift and I had to play with the best players available.”) As Arnold entered medical school at the University of South Florida—and thus prolonged his flag eligibility—he added another championship, then two more as a surgery/urology resident at Ohio State. Then, in 1999, UNO and flag football’s governing body decreed that no player could compete for the national championship more than five times. There’s some disagreement as to whether this is the “Paul Arnold” rule, but Paul Arnold suspects as much. “It wasn’t a big deal until I started winning, and winning, and winning,” he says.

College football’s great powers are concentrated in the Midwest and Southeast. In flag football, they’re all in southeast Louisiana. Seventeen of 25 men’s championships have been won by Pelican State teams, and 14 of those titles belong to squads froma quartet of perennial powers—Delgado, UNO, Nunez Community College, and Southeastern Louisiana University. Flag football loves the little guys; take away the four Arnold titles, and there are only table scraps for perennial also-rans like Arizona, North Carolina State, and Texas Tech.

Why the Louisiana dominance? It’s a product of year-round competition and a bit of slick backroom maneuvering, says Tony Manzella. In the early 1990s, Manzella won two flag football titles as the quarterback for Southeastern Louisiana. When he went for a three-peat in 1992, some veterans of the powerhouse University of New Orleans team prolonged their flag careers by registering for classes at crosstown rival Delgado Community College. The ad-hoc Delgado team won the title, beating Manzella’s undergrad squad in the quarterfinals. “They had an all-star team. We were just college kids,” he says.

Flag football has a noble tradition of academic disloyalty. Take the squad that calls itself “Widespread Panic.” In 2001, the team played for the University of New Orleans. In 2003, Widespread Panic made the tourney final as students at Nunez Community College.

These days, Nunez reigns as flag’s all-powerful overlord. The 2000-student Chalmette, La., school has won three championships in five years under the stewardship of Andrew Sercovich, a 38-year-old former player who now teaches a one-credit athletic conditioning course at the school. Sercovich says that, like Michigan and Miami, Nunez appeals to athletes who want the opportunity to win a national championship. “It’s that excitement,” he says. “You travel to different states, you play colleges from all around the country.”

In last year’s flag championship game, the Nunez Pelicans and their 30-year-old quarterback David “Duke” Rousse scored a 26-7 victory over … the Nunez Widespread Panic. That’s right: When flag football’s most prestigious title was on the line, Nunez played Nunez for all the marbles. Even so, Sercovich bristles at the charge that he’s running a flag football factory. He’s particularly galled by accusations that his 28 players qualify by registering for a single course—Sercovich’s own athletic conditioning class, which includes heavy doses of flag football theory and technique.

This year’s Nunez-on-Nunez action has generated some animated chatter in the nation’s flag football salons. Flag’s governing body is now strongly considering pleas to purge the sport of rent-a-players. Paul Arnold, in semi-retirement after a 2002 elbow injury, says eligibility rules must be changed to save the soul of flag. “There needs to be a higher minimum of credits. You need to be a full-time student,” he says. Looking back, he thinks all the controversy is ironic. “They questioned my eligibility every time I came, when in fact I was probably the most eligible of anyone in the whole tournament.”