High school football has a major long-term challenge.
If you went to a York County season opener this past Friday night, you likely didn’t notice it. The stands were still mostly filled, the fans were still plenty enthusiastic, and the atmosphere was definitely electric.
Under the surface, however, the game has a serious problem. If you looked closely, you may have noticed that there weren’t quite as many players on the sidelines as there used to be.
That point was driven home Monday when the National Federation of State High School Associations released its annual participation survey. For the first time in 30 years, participation in high school sports declined in 2018-19.
According to the organization, the 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants is a decline of 43,395 from the 2017-18 school year, when the number of participants in high school sports reached an all-time record high of 7,980,886.
This year’s total is still the third-highest ever. The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school year.
The football decline: The biggest single contributor to the most recent decline was football. Participation in 11-player football declined by 30,829 participants to 1,006,013 — the lowest mark since 1,002,734 in the 1999-2000 school year. The number of participants in 11-player football dropped for the fifth consecutive year, declining in all but seven states.
In Pennsylvania, the problem is even more serious. Football participation has dropped in each of the last 10 years, going from 26,730 in 2009-10 to 25,515 in 2018-19. That’s a drop of 1,215 players in just a decade, or nearly 5%.
The number of Pennsylvania football programs has also dropped in the past decade from 594 in 2009-10 to 567 this past year. That’s also a decline of nearly 5%.
On the surface, that might not seem like much, but if that trend line continues, Pennsylvania high school football is going to be in serious trouble down the road, especially at the smaller schools.
Local impact: In fact, the trouble is already here.
Last year, in the months leading up to the season, Fairfield wasn’t sure it would be able to field a varsity program.
This year, Hanover players and coaches had to resort to actively recruiting students to fill out its roster.
Several York-Adams teams have been forced to discontinue their freshman teams and move up their freshman players to the junior varsity or even varsity squads. Having freshmen playing against upperclassmen in a physical sport such as football is not something that any school wants to do, but they have no choice if they want to field a decent sized roster.
The injury issue: The main reason for the decline in football participation is fairly obvious to anyone who has been following the issue — the risk of injuries, especially concussions.
The well-known horror stories about the debilitating long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy have undoubtedly scared off some concerned parents who were considering whether to allow their kids to play football.
NFHS response: To its credit, the NFHS acknowledges there’s a football participation problem and they are trying to do something about it.
In a news release announcing the survey results, Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS executive director, said: "Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it has ever been.
“We also are working with groups such as USA Football to reduce contact and teach proper tackling skills at the youth levels to increase the interest level as kids reach junior high school and high school.”
No evidence that problem can be fixed: Acknowledging a problem is one thing. Fixing it is something else. At this point, there’s no evidence that the changes that have been enacted have stopped the participation decline.
When parents see young men such as 29-year-old Andrew Luck passing up millions of NFL dollars because he’s simply exhausted by the injury-pain-rehab treadmill, it has to give them pause.
Do they want to start their kids on a similar path?
The recent survey seems to indicate that more parents are saying no to that question.
Pushing kids to safer sports: Yes, it can be argued that families today are having fewer kids than in the past, so there’s naturally a smaller pool of possible football players. Over the last decade, however, overall participation in high school sports has been generally increasing, with this past year being an outlier. During that same period, football participation has continually declined.
That would seem to indicate that parents are pushing their kids into sports that are perceived to be safer.
Long-term challenge: This is not to say that prep football is in any immediate danger of disappearing, especially at the larger schools. It is still, by far, the most popular fan sport in America, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Friday night football will continue to be a pivotal part of Americana for years to come.
Decades from now, however, it could be a different story. If the recent decline in football participation continues unabated, the sport at the small-school high school level could be in real jeopardy.
For folks who love the sport, that has to be a troubling prospect.
— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.