This story appeared in the December 2017 issue with the headline “Friday Night Lights-Out.”
Are Texans losing faith in football? That might be a heretical question in the land of Friday Night Lights. In pretty much every little town between Waskom and Dalhart, the state’s ardor for the sport has run so deep, for so long, folks only half-joke when they talk about football as the unofficial religion of Texas.
And fervent Texans do pay their tithes: taxpayers lavish as much as $72 million on high school stadiums that put many university facilities to shame. What might seem like outlandish excess to outsiders doesn’t faze hometown fans who see their high school team as an extension of their community’s unity and grit. In rural areas, especially, the town and team are synonymous, explains author Gray Levy in his 2015 book, Big and Bright: Deep in the Heart of Texas High School Football. “In Texas, it’s still accepted wisdom that football builds boys into men and can lift a school and community in ways no other activity can.”
But if high school football really is that important, then Texans have cause for concern: The share of high school students who play the game has been sliding for years, according to records maintained by the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the state governing body for public school extracurricular activities. Between the 2000 and 2016 seasons the sport’s annual participation rate fell off by one quarter. Last year, just under 11 percent of high schoolers in the state—167,428 students—played UIL-sanctioned football and six-man football in Texas. That’s a big drop from 2000, when the number stood at 14.5 percent.
And the trend seems to have hit younger players as well. In the Central Texas Pop Warner youth football league, participation is “down all over the place,” says administrator Charles Simpson. Five years ago there were forty teams in the league. Today, there are only eighteen—an enormous drop that suggests that we’ll be seeing even fewer high school players in a few years.
Why the decline? Amid the steady drip of revelations about harmful effects of concussions and sub-concussive hits, many parents are keeping their sons away from tackle football as a safety precaution. In September, Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center released a particularly scary study that found playing tackle football before age 12 doubled the risk of behavioral problems and tripled the risk of depression later in life.
“I think the concussions have concerned a lot of mamas, especially,” says coach D.W. Rutledge, who built a dynasty at Converse Judson in the 1980s and 1990s, coaching in seven state championship games and winning four of them. “The media can scare mamas to death.” But Rutledge, Rutledge, who is now the executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association, thinks the fears are overblown. “I really believe football is safer now than it’s ever been,” he says.
UIL Director Charles Breithaupt is skeptical, though not dismissive, of the notion that health concerns are responsible for the decline. “I’m not hearing from parents around the state saying they’re afraid for their children to play,” he says. “But maybe they’re speaking with their feet and not showing up.”
Breithaupt cites two other trends as possible culprits for slumping involvement not just in football but in other traditional UIL sports like volleyball and cross country. The first is athletic specialization and the rise of non-sanctioned activities like club sports, which provide alternatives to UIL sports. “We don’t have four-sport lettermen like we used to,” he says. In previous generations, for instance, a star pitcher on a varsity baseball team might have played baseball in the spring and then doubled as the school’s quarterback in the fall. Now the same student Is more likely to forgo football altogether, opting to play fall baseball instead.
Changing demographics also play a role, he says. In Texas, more than half of public school students are Hispanic. “When we talk to them about football, they’re thinking soccer,” says Breithaupt, though he notes that many Texas Hispanics do play football. High school boys’ and girls’ soccer has been gaining popularity, though not at levels that would explain the entire decline in football.
Nationwide, participation in high school football has declined about 2.5 percent over the past five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The downturn in teenagers and younger children playing tackle football is so troubling that in February, Rutledge joined Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President Charlotte Jones Anderson for a powwow of professional team officials, major university conference commissioners, and youth football honchos to address it. “[Anderson] was concerned about the game being under attack,” he says. Anderson, the daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, chairs the NFL Foundation, and youth football participation is one of her main focuses. “There was a lot of them in that meeting that liked (children) to be padded up when they’re six, seven, eight years old” so they can get an early start playing tackle football, says Rutledge, who prefers that younger kids get introduced to the sport via the flag version.
Youth football advocates tout advances in equipment and a new emphasis on rugby-style tackling that leads with the shoulder rather than the head, which reduces players’ exposure to brain trauma. They say football’s rewards outweigh the risks, and anyway, kids can get concussions when they fall off their bicycles, too. Their arguments run counter to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September finding that nearly one in three teenagers who play contact sports like football reported having a concussion at least once in their lives, compared to just one in five teenagers overall.
“We’re getting information out there and trying to educate everybody, but at end of the day it’s the parents’ call,” says Charles Simpson. “If you give a kid any kind of out, if the kid doesn’t want to be outside in the heat, then the kid’s not gonna play.”
If Texans long for a revival of their state religion, they might want to start praying.