As the Super Bowl approaches, is high school football dying a slow death?
Millions will watch the Rams and Patriots play this weekend. But participation in high-school football is falling, and fears over brain trauma could be to blame
For Mike Kelly, a high school football coach in Manassas Park, Virginia, early August usually means anticipation and excitement. But last year, he had a problem. Practices at Manassas Park High School were drawing only 15 players – a tiny number for a sport in which rosters often exceed 50 athletes. Concluding that Kelly’s team was too undermanned to compete safely, the school cancelled its varsity football season, instead playing a junior varsity schedule.
“Finding out that you are not going to have a program, that has a big impact on not just the kids [on the team], but on the school itself and the community,” said Kelly, who has coached at the the school for four seasons and played football himself at the University of Virginia. “You don’t feel good.”
For many decades, high school football has been a feelgood American institution. The sport provides pride and entertainment in small towns and big cities alike, inspires films like Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights, and produces the next generation of stars in college football and the NFL.
Yet as fans prepare to gorge on beer and guacamole while watching the New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, the sport is eroding at its roots. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), high school football participation in the United States is down 6.1% over the last decade, falling from 1.14m players in 2008 to 1.07m in 2017. That decline has occurred even as overall high school sports participation has increased by 5.9% over the same span, rising to 7.98m athletes in 2017. In addition, youth tackle football – a feeder system for high schools – has seen a 17.4% participation drop among children ages six to 12 over the past five years, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Coaches and others attribute the slide to a number of factors, including rising interest in other sports. First and foremost, many believe, is increased public awareness of the scientific link between football hits to the head and brain injuries, including concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that’s been found in the brains of former players.
“During the offseason, we would always have 100 kids waiting, preparing for the next year,” said Tom Green, football coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, at an Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program youth football forum held last year. “The last few years, we’re down to like 40, 35 kids participating in football. Our numbers have dropped.”
Football remains the top high school sport overall, and the most popular among male athletes. More than a million boys played in 2017 – nearly double the number that participated in outdoor track and field (600,097) or basketball (551,373), and greater than the amount who played baseball (487,097) and soccer (456,362) combined.
Spectator interest is also healthy. ESPN broadcast 18 high school football games across three of its networks last fall. In Texas, nine high school stadiums costing between $20m and $70m were built over the last decade, while another facility was renovated for $33m.
Randy Trivers, who coaches at Gonzaga High School in Washington DC and last December was named USA Today’s All-USA Coach of the Year, says that overall enthusiasm for football is “as strong as it has ever been”. Trivers recently met with a college coach who had just taken his first recruiting trip to Texas, where he watched several dozen high school players conduct an offseason workout. The college coach subsequently was told that “the varsity guys will be coming later”.
“It was all freshman players,” Trivers said. “The passion is still there. The quality of the football on the field is as good as it has ever been.”
Quantity is another story. In the fall of 2017, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr received an email from his son’s junior high announcing that there wasn’t enough interest from students at three nearby middle schools to form a single eighth-grade tackle football team.
That got Pielke – who blogs about sports and previously wrote a book on doping –wondering: was America experiencing what he calls “Peak Football”, the moment of maximum participation in the sport? Examining NHFS data, he saw that high school football participation increased every year from 1998 to 2008, peaking at roughly 1.14m players. Since then, however, the number of athletes has dropped every year except 2014.
Comparing those numbers to US Census Bureau population data for 2010 to 2016, Pielke found a similar pattern: the percentage of American boys ages 14-17 playing high school football peaked at 13.2% in 2013 and fell to 12.7% in 2016. Over the last decade, Pielke saw, participation was up in a handful of football hotbeds, including Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. But it had dropped in 40 states, sometimes by surprisingly large margins: 9.5% in California, 11.6% in New Jersey, 21.6% in Michigan, 23% in Ohio and 55% in Vermont.
Since 2014 alone, high school football has lost more than 45,000 participants – roughly 600 teams’ worth of players. “Demographically, it seems pretty convincing that we are in the early part of a process that started a decade ago where football is just not was popular as it used to be among youth,” Pielke said. “Exactly why it is happening is a tricky question.”
Trivers said recruiting high school athletes to play football is more challenging than when he first began coaching more than two decades ago.
“Athletes are more likely to play one sport year-round, especially with so many parents trying to push their kids for college scholarships,” he said. “And football is hard. People don’t like hard. If you have a kid who likes football and basketball, going to play for two hours in the gym is different than going out in the hot sun or cold rain and practicing football.”
The sport’s level of physical risk is different, too. According to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study, football has the highest injury and concussion rates of any high school sport; the Healthy Sport Index, a data-driven online tool developed by the Aspen Institute that compares 10 youth sports, ranks football last in terms of athlete safety.
“Those concerns have always been there, but over my career, they certainly have increased,” Trivers said. “When you start talking about head injuries, it has trickled down from the NFL. And I think the way things have been emphasized and portrayed in the media has made for a different level of questioning for families and parents wondering what sports they should get their kids involved in.”
Nathan Stiles, who died in 2010 at age 17 of a brain injury following a high school football game, subsequently became the youngest person to be diagnosed with CTE. Two years ago, Boston University researchers reported that they had found the disease in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players, 48 of 53 former college players, and three of 14 former high school players they posthumously examined. Meanwhile, researchers from Purdue University have found that both concussions and subconcussive blows can cause damage and changes to the brains of high school football players.
In 2016, a University of Massachusetts survey found that 65% of the public considers sports concussions and head injuries to be a major problem; that 87% believe that CTE is a serious public health issue; and that 48% think the statement that “tackle football is a safe activity for children during high school” is either certainly or probably false.
Pielke said that the two steepest high school football participation drops this decade came in 2012 – when Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, later diagnosed with CTE, committed suicide – and 2015, when the Will Smith feature film Concussion, detailing the NFL’s alleged denial and dismissal of CTE research, was released in theaters.
“Was that causal?” Pielke said. “I don’t know. That’s a tricky social science question. But the notion that the more people talk about head injury risk in football, the more parents and kids making decisions to play are aware of that risk isn’t outlandish.”
Too big to fail?
To mitigate brain injury risk, sports governing bodies in Texas, Florida and other states have limited hitting and tackling during high school football practices. Additional reductions are likely, and the sport eventually could adopt rules changes to reduce violent collisions and helmet-to-helmet hits.
But whether such measures will be enough to halt or reverse declining participation remains to be seen. As awareness of football’s dangers increases, academic administrators and policymakers may question the wisdom of schools sponsoring a sport that can damage students’ brains. Lawsuits and rising insurance costs also could force some schools to drop the sport.
Football’s demographics may be shifting as well, following the path of boxing – a once-mainstream sport that largely has been abandoned by upper- and middle-class families and now draws most of its participants from poorer communities where athletes are less likely to be educated about, and more willing to accept, health risks.
A story on HBO’s Real Sports airing this week found that over the last five years in Illinois, the proportion of high school rosters occupied by low-income boys has risen nearly 25% – even as the number of players in the state has fallen by 14.8% over the same period.
Yet despite its current problems, high school football likely is too big to fail. Americans have been enjoying the sport for as long as they’ve been fretting about the safety of its participants: in 1907, the Journal of the American Medical Association condemned tackle football for children under age 18, calling it “no sport for boys to play”.
Even if high school football continues to lose participants at its current rate, Pielke calculates, it still would boast more than 800,000 players in 2030.
“A gradual erosion over time is a large concern, but I don’t think it will ever just disappear,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. “Personally, I think it will continue to be fairly popular as a whole in our country.”
Kelly concurs. After Manassas Park High canceled its varsity season, its junior varsity team went undefeated – and finished the season with 31 athletes, a large enough roster that the school plans to resume varsity play this coming fall.
“We are going to have a team,” Kelly said. “We will build from where we are at, and eventually build back to where it was.” There are no plans to help students who develop life-long brain problems.