NFHS survey: High school football decline is slowing
The latest national participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations revealed that more kids are playing prep sports than ever before. That’s a fine achievement, but the focus continues to be on football and whether its numbers will finally begin to recover.
Football remains the nation’s most popular high school sport, with more than 1.08 million students participating. But since the 2009-10 school year, there are 28,189 fewer kids playing the sport, and the downward trend sparked a national discussion about football’s future.Safety remains at the forefront of the conversation. Concussions and other debilitating head injuries are considered responsible for the drop in participation, but state and national organizations have made strides in safety protocols. At the same time, companies continue to create detection devices and other innovations offering greater protection for athletes.
“The NFHS and its member state associations have taken significant steps over the past 10 years to minimize the risk of participation in football and all high school sports, so this report on the continued strong interest and participation in high school football is very encouraging,” Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director, said in a statement about the latest football participation numbers.
“With the adoption of state laws and protocols for concussion management in place, we continue to believe that the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it has been since the first rules were written in 1932 — and we believe this year’s participation report is confirmation of that belief.”
NFHS’s survey showed football lost just 309 athletes during the 2015-16 school year, a significant improvement over the 9,767 athletes who fell off the year prior. While that’s a promising sign, the survey also revealed that 107 fewer schools are offering 11-man football and 232 programs have dropped the sport since the 2010-11 school year.
One of those schools is Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California. Last spring, the school decided it would end its football program when only 12 students signed up to play for the 2016 season. Athletic Director Tom Thomsen said it was a difficult decision, but the school needed to be fair to its opponents and the students.
“I think it’s a concussion thing and it’s a cultural thing,” Thomsen said. “We also had kids not wanting to come back and play because they practice hard and they lose, and that’s demoralizing.”
When Thomsen became the athletic director at Mission San Jose about 18 years ago, football was strong. Nearly 90 kids participated across its football program, including varsity and two non-varsity teams, and when the season was over a lot of them competed on the wrestling team.
That changed over the last decade, and Thomsen admits concussion issues and parental concerns played a role in the program’s demise. During the summer, he said two other schools in his area abandoned their freshman football programs due to lack of interest, but he hopes the decline soon reverses direction.
“I don’t know if it’s going to continue, but hopefully not,” he said. “I think football is a great sport, but you have to be committed and dedicated to it. I just think the bad publicity has gotten to parents.”
Thomsen projected his athletic department would lose between $10,000 and $12,000 in revenue by dropping the football program. Mission San Jose plans to examine the possibility to creating a freshman team for the 2017 season, but Thomsen admits it could be difficult.
“That’s our plan,” he said. “It’s hard to bring it back after folding, but if we can get 30 or 40 kids, we want to start to play again.”