We might be ready to watch some football, but fewer and fewer prep students are gearing up to play.
According to a recent report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of high school participants fell by 25,901 in 2016-17. Enrollment is down 4.5 percent over the past decade and schools in the Midwest and Northeast are dropping the sport at a startling rate.
However, the NFL doesn’t have anything to worry about as a new season approaches. Despite all the concerns about safety, concussions and long-term effects, and despite the high-profile instances of early retirements, we’re generations away from the point where a player shortage is remotely possible.
Our Fridays are suffering a bit. But our Sundays (and Saturdays) should be fine.
Granted, it’s all connected. Youth football leagues – the pipeline for high schools – have experienced a nearly 30 percent drop in participation between 2008 and 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. More and more parents are hesitant to let their young sons don pads and engage in tackle football. (That’s probably a good thing; no reason to rush still-developing brains into head-jarring collisions.)
Prep football’s fabled “Friday Night Lights” are an autumn ritual in many communities, some of which revolve around their schools’ gridiron exploits. Even with the overall slowdown in boys playing the sport, 61 schools across the nation added football for the first time in 2016-17.
It also remains the sport with the highest number of participants, with some districts boasting freshmen and junior varsity programs in addition to varsity.
“While we are concerned when any sport experiences a decline in participation, the numbers do not substantiate that schools are dropping the sport of football,” NFHS executive director Bob Gardner said in a statement. “The NFHS and its member state high school associations have worked hard to reduce the risk of injury in high school football, and we are pleased at the continued strength of the sport across the country.”
I admit to having mixed feelings. In the end, I lump football with boxing, auto racing, sky diving, bull riding and other activities that put participants’ lives and limbs at risk.
Grown folks gonna do what grown folks gonna do. But if youngsters aren’t forced to play and their exposure can be limited prior to high school, I can’t agree with any draconian calls to, say, abolish youth football.
Will it die on its own once too many boys never pick up the sport, or refuse to stick with it? I suspect we’ll never see the day and neither will our children or children’s children.
We don’t see major colleges dropping football. The states that produce the highest percentage of players recruited by Division I schools – Florida, Georgia and Louisiana – experienced increases in the number of varsity teams over the last five years. The hotbed of California had a slight dip (-2 percent) while the hotbed of Texas – where one district recently opened a $72 million high school stadium – was up a tick (1 percent).
The NFL should be concerned about the long-term prospects of football but the foreseeable future still looks robust. There’s too much money to be made by too many players, a Faustian pact they find impossible to resist. For most of those gifted enough to play pro football, pursuing it is their only path to a couple of mankind’s strongest intoxicants, fame and fortune.
From a health standpoint, armed with the knowledge that many boys risk scrambled brains with no payday in their future, we should put more emphasis on academics. Not just to the point where athletes remain eligible, but a genuine effort to make studies a priority.
Everyone isn’t going to be a Rhodes scholar like former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, or a doctoral candidate in mathematics like offensive lineman John Urshel, who retired from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26. Some brilliant men have such a love and passion for football, they will continue to play.
But the more options the better.
Football is the No. 1 sport, but it can’t be cocky. Horse racing and boxing used to be up there, too. The league will continue to talk about player safety and improvements in that area, even though only so much can be done.
The fear of concussions and CTE are real for many parents and some players, but the sport has things in its favor, including gambling, the televised product and marketing. And there’s still a sizable portion of people who believe football has endearing qualities worth instilling in our youth, health risks be damned.
“Football can be a great game, and still can offer many benefits when served up well,” Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, told The Washington Post. “But it is being squeezed from several angles, all of them 21st century concerns. It takes a lot to do football right, and more than a few youth and school programs are groaning under that pressure.”
It might be groaning, yes.
But football is far from giving up the ghost.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.