As Concerns Grow About Health Risks, Has The U.S. Reached Peak High School Football?

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Photo: Empty Football Field (Flickr)

The number of boys playing high school football on the United States has dropped in the past few years, according to research by Professor Roger Pielke, who directs The University of Colorado’s Sports Governance Center. And some coaches attribute those declines “to parental concerns about the risks of football.”

We asked him about his findings, and a commentary Pielke wrote for Play The Game. Read some edited highlights from the conversation below.

Conversation Highlights With Roger Pielke

You studied data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the U.S. Census. What did you find?

“The data on participation, just the numbers, shows that there is a decline and the number of boys participating in football has declined steadily from 2008, after two decades of increasing. It’s declined by about 50,000 boys over 2008 to 2016. Half of that decrease occurred from 2015 to 2016.”

Is high school sports participation down in general?

“No. I think, it’s safe to say that the participation of high school kids, boys and girls, in sports is going up. That’s what the data shows. And last year, just to take an example, the only declines that we saw last year were in football, wrestling and golf. All other sports saw an increase.”

What’s your hypothesis?

“If you take a look at media reports in regions across the U.S. there are a number of instances of schools unable to field teams, or JV teams, including here in Colorado, and there’s also evidence at the state level of declines. Coaches are attributing, in many of those instances, those declines to parental concerns about the risks of football.”

The suicide death of former NFL player Junior Seau and the Will Smith movie “Concussion” raised the profile of the brain condition CTE. Is it possible that growing awareness is driving the drop in young football players?

“What we’re looking at here is really an inflection point and we’re right up against it. It’s occurring now, and I think it offers an opportunity for us to talk about football in the United States, health risks, what we want it to be. Because two decades of increase in participation has turned around and that turnaround seems real at least for now.”

Your online piece has a provocative title. It asks “Has the United States reached peak football?”

“I think maybe we’ve reached peak football. But you know that’s not saying too much, since as I say in the piece, the NFL has 1,800 players, and high school sports has more than a million. So we could see a long-time decline in participation without really much obvious consequence for the NCAA or the NFL. That said, if the rates of decline accelerate from here things could be perceived very differently.”