America’s favorite sport is facing some serious issues that could damage football for decades to come. Watch any college or NFL game these days and you are likely to see anywhere from three to five players hauled away with significant injuries. Beyond that, more and more data reveals that the consequences of contact to the head have lifelong effects.
Now is not the time for coaches and administrators at all levels to deny what is happening. They must embrace the realities of a sport that, frankly, has gotten too fast and furious for its own good and is decaying from its roots on up.
One who confronts the prospect of the sports’ possible demise is Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. As painful as it might be to discuss high school participation decreasing -- nationally and in North Carolina -- in a sport that fuels the economic bus at the high school level, Tucker does not duck the issue.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“We cannot turn our head to the that fact that, yes, concussions have dominated the news over the last several years and it has to factor in,” Tucker says. “To what extent, I don’t know. I can’t say that’s a large percentage of it, but I do know it factors in.
“I’m sure parents, especially moms, are saying to their sons: ‘No, I don’t want you playing football. I don’t want you getting those concussions. I want you to live a long time, or I want you to have a healthy life.’ “
Fewer playing football
Eleven-man high school football participation nationwide has declined by 72,499 from 2011 to 2018, a 1 percent drop, according to the National Association of State High School Federations. More alarming is that there were 7,091 fewer participants in North Carolina during the same period, a whopping 19.9 percent drop.
Even with an admitted clerical error by the NCHSAA in its reporting prior to 2015, there remains a significant decline in the sport’s participation numbers. North Carolina is not alone. Forty-one states reported a decline in participation from 2011-16, according to the NASHSF.
More eye-opening is that 20 schools nationally dropped football in 2017. In North Carolina, Chapel Hill High, Cedar Ridge High in Hillsborough and the Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe suspended their football programs this season alone.
“What would be alarming would be if they are dropping the program in their entirety,” says Tucker, who believes all three programs will return to playing the sport in the near future. “We are certainly disappointed anytime a school drops a program, whether it be football, soccer or any sport, they feel like they have to drop. But if they don’t drop the entire program, then we can attribute that to the realization that our numbers are not where they need to be to compete at the varsity level.”
Nelson Smith has been around the game for decades, including 31 years at Garner High as an assistant and head coach. His teams compiled a 144-30 record as a head coach and appeared in the 2011 4A title game. He is serving this season as Garner’s offensive coordinator.
Smith believes the sport has never been safer at his level. He cites improved technology in producing helmets and stricter guidelines for coaches to teach proper tackling techniques.
“You want to make sure you’re doing it the right way,” Smith says. “Any coach fears having a kid get seriously hurt. So, all the coaches are teaching it. They’re going to camps, having to take online courses. It’s making coaches very aware of concessions and symptoms.”
As much as the physical nature of the sport and associated injuries, Smith believes the disappearance of the three-sport star also is accounting for fewer players in football. When Smith played, he moved from football season to basketball season to baseball season. Today, athletes at the high school level are much more specialized in one sport. Then there are the athletes who are steering from football in favor of lifetime sports such as soccer, cross country, tennis and golf.
Thus, while recreation departments are flourishing overall, the number of kids playing football continues to diminish. Pop Warner programs in Durham, Johnston, Lee and Wake counties belong to the Consolidated Football Federation with tackle football offered for those 5 to 13 years old.
Mark Massey is coaching in his 30th season of Garner’s Pop Warner league. He has seen a tremendous advancement in equipment, which must be certified every fall, and in the teaching of tackling techniques for coaches to prevent injuries.
Massey says he loves the interaction with the kids who play football and is beginning to see sons of the players he coached long ago. But he also is not blind to the fact that the number of participants is dwindling. At its peak, the Garner Pop Warner league fielded eight teams. This year, it is down to five. It is likely to drop to four or three teams before the number increases.
Garner has attempted to field flag football teams over the years, but never had enough interest to make it work.
A 2016 University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Public Opinion research survey found that 78 percent of American adults do not believe it is appropriate for children to participate in tackle football before the age of 14, and 63 percent believe it is either certainly or probably false that tackle football is a safe activity for children before they reach the high school level, according to an Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program Analysis.
The fact is, for the sake of the game’s future, towns like Garner must eliminate tackle football for youngsters, and middle schools need to do the same. It is perhaps the best first step to keeping children involved in the sport all the way to the high school level.
Unless those tactics are employed at the grassroots level, we might very well be on the cusp of seeing football lose its standing as the nation’s favorite sport.