Chapel Hill: Opinion

Ted Vaden: Has the football pastime’s time passed?

Maybe the time has come that we stop playing football.

The uniquely American game remains wildly popular as a spectator sport, but football faces unprecedented new challenges at all levels – professional, college, high school and even sandlot.

The precarious state of football was brought home to me this fall when East Chapel Hill High School was forced to cancel three games, including the last two of the season. The reason: declining student interest. At one low point, only 16 boys were showing up for practice, not enough to field a team and replacements for games. Forfeiting final games was a dictate of safety.

At the college level, schools are beginning to drop football. Earlier this month, University of Alabama at Birmingham – located in the national hotbed of football – became the first top tier NCAA program in nearly 20 years to abandon football. The school reckoned it could no longer afford to subsidize football at the level needed to compete with Division 1 programs.

The travails of NFL football are well documented. The league this year agreed to compensate 4,500 former players – a third of those still living – for brain injuries suffered during their careers. NFL games still draw record television audiences, but the legal threat to the game is so menacing that it recently led the New York Times to compare football to tobacco and pro boxing as American institutions in long-term decline. “Could this be the moment when things turn sour for the NFL, the beginning of the end of its long dominance?” the Times asked.

The question applies to all levels of football, not just the pros. It’s most interesting at the high school level. The experience at East Chapel Hill is mirrored nationally – high school boys are hanging up their helmets, often because of their parents’ concerns.

A recent RAND corporation poll found that only 55 percent of parents were comfortable with theirs sons playing football, compared to 90 percent or more for baseball, basketball, soccer and track. Their concern is safety. Three high school players nationally died from football injuries in one week this fall, including a 17-year-old at Rolesville High School who suffered a stroke after being injured in practice.

In North Carolina, East Chapel Hill’s experience apparently is an aberration. Football remains North Carolina’s most popular high school sport in student participation. Last year, 36,273 boys were on high school teams, up 2 percent from the year before. Of the state’s 402 high schools, 376 field football teams, and East is the only one recently that has cut short its season.

“Nobody else has done that,” says Rick Strunk, associate commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, based in Chapel Hill. “That is just not a trend in North Carolina.”

Fear of lawsuits

East Chapel Hill may be an outlier, but it also may be a bellwether. The trend of abandoning high school football is occurring in politically blue states – those with higher levels of education, larger urban populations and that tend to vote Democratic. Participation has declined in New York, California, Massachusetts, and Maryland, among others. President Obama recently told the New Yorker that, if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football.

In response to the concern, states have tightened controls on high school football. California recently banned high schools from blocking and tackling in practice for more than three hours a week. North Carolina hasn’t gone that far, but a new law does regulate the treatment of concussion on high school teams.

One reason for states’ tighter regulation is fear of lawsuits, similar to the NFL, but at the college, high school or even sandlot level. Ultimately, it may be the law and financial judgments that drive football off public playing fields. The cost of fielding large teams, as experienced at Alabama-Birmingham but felt by colleges and high schools everywhere, also is a factor.

Here locally, the ugly scandal at UNC is not doing much to rouse enthusiasm for football. I’ve seen one newspaper column urging the school to drop athletic scholarships, as a way to restore integrity to the game.

The most sensitive area is youth football. The New York Times recently ran a heart-breaking story about an 11-year-old Indiana boy in a coma with a burst blood vessel in his brain, sustained in a youth football tournament. Pop Warner football, the nation’s largest youth-football program, experienced a 10 percent drop in participation between 2010 and 2012, the Times reports.

Some experts, including at UNC, say children should not be allowed to play any contact sport because their brains are still developing. One study showed that players between ages 7 and 8 had suffered hits as severe as those on the college level.

This kind of knowledge may be what ultimately determines the future of our unofficial national pastime. If parents keep their children off of football fields, that will choke off the supply of young bodies ready to suit up in high school, college and even the pros.

Ted Vaden is a former edtor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News.