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Texas High School Students Are Moving Away From Football

Friday night, lights out.

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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.

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“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.

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  • Allan Folsom

    Other sports, like Lacrosse are gaining in popularity. Football is on the decline.

  • Rusty

    Coach Rutledge…the great thing about science is, it doesn’t care what you “believe”. What’s important is what the data support. Even Mike Ditka has recently been quoted as saying the risks of brain injury are just not worth it.

    • disqus_vU1klyrdjb

      While I understand and agree a bit with your point.. some science is not always correct and is updated with hindsight. Thalidomide is a good starting point.

  • johnstark2

    I must say, the initial shocking statistic about the decline in football participation from 2000 to 2016 appears to be nothing on closer examination. Surely the state’s high school-aged population has increased a lot in 16 years. Has the number of opportunities to participate in football kept pace? I’m sure there are some new high schools with new teams–but I also suspect that many existing high schools have expanded to accommodate more students. The bigger high schools still have only one football team. You can expand your band or your chess club, but not your football team. Also–has there been any consolidation of smaller schools? If so, you again lose participation opportunities.

    • Limeade Youth

      Exactly this. There’s a big difference between a percentage decline and an absolute decline. You’ll note there is only half of the absolute decline mentioned and no link to the relevant UIL records.

    • Limeade Youth

      This link is to NHFS stats and not UIL but the more limited data appears to support my theory: in 2008-09 boys football participation was just over 160k, but in 2014-15 it was over 163k.
      http://www.nfhs.org/ParticipationStatics/ParticipationStatics (dot) aspx/

  • Robert C.

    There is also the increase in cost in both time and money. When I played high school football in the ’80s, I only had to buy my cleats. Now kids are asked to buy more and more equipment out of pocket. My son spent a good amount of money to play middle school ball – cleats, girdle, gloves and more. And more and more football coaches are demanding you don’t do any other activity. My son was a middle school choir all-state member. He wasn’t going to give that up in high school, but the coach basically sent him from the A team to the C team freshman year. So football was out. He plays golf now instead.

  • Steve

    DW Rutledge REALLY sounds like a cement head. It’s the media’s fault in reporting scientific facts regarding concussions? Seriously? And it’s not just “the mamas” coach. I love my son as much as his mother does and I wouldn’t let him play football either.

    • St. Anger

      If you can’t figure out why he denies the obvious, don’t forget how he makes his living.

  • Ted Janusz

    Wes, thank you for doing the research for your in-depth article and for sharing your valuable insights. And for keeping the community informed.

    Here are three additional resources on the topic you might find interesting:

    What is it like to live with a former NFL player who has CTE? An interview with Dallas resident Cyndy Feasel, author of After the Cheering Stops https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/cte-interview-cyndy-feasel-author-after-cheering-stops-ted-janusz

    What happens inside the helmet of a ten-year-old football player?

    What will we tell our kids (and grandkids) about football as it existed in 2017? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/back-future-cars-football-cte-ted-janusz/

    Keep up your GREAT work!

    Regards,

    Ted Janusz

  • txholdem

    I’m sure all of the stories regarding the possibility of brain damage or concussions in football has had some effect, but Dr. Breithaupt hits the nail on the head when he speaks of our changing demographics. Most schools throughout the state have large and ever growing numbers of hispanic students and they simply don’t turn out to participate in any extracurricular activity. Check the rosters of your local high school teams and see what the ethnicity of the players are. It will not be hispanic unless the area is predominately hispanic. This state is changing.

    • St. Anger

      Phew. I was afraid I was going to get through all the comments without encountering any racism.

  • Elizabeth Gill

    More sports are now offered in our high school. Also, the school is so much bigger that a smaller percentage of students would get a chance to play.

  • disqus_vU1klyrdjb

    Why do people care so much about sports to begin with is a good starting point of the conversation. If there stadiums deteriorate would that really matter in an average daily life of a kid? Aren’t there more activities to do than sports?

    • St. Anger

      There are certainly alternatives to football.

      But arguing that kids shouldn’t play sports at all is both self-defeating and neglects the whole person.

  • St. Anger

    When Plano east or westlake high or Odessa Permian can’t field a team, I’ll buy the premise.

    Until then, more dementia for everybody! Especially the poors.

    • Bookbread

      Comparing 5A schools to 6man schools is apples and oranges.

      • St. Anger

        CTE doesn’t care how big your high school is.

        • Bookbread

          I agree; I get your irony (now); I guess the delay in me getting it has something to do with playing UIL football. 🙂

  • Manuel Labor

    Lacrosse is the answer. Played correctly, there’s just enough contact for the kids who like it, but concussions and head trauma are rare. Good helmets are a must. Nearly any patch of grass can be marked as a field. Billion dollar stadia are not needed. The equipment is inexpensive, compared to football. The rules are much like hockey, with a little soccer mixed in. It’s a great game. The Big 12 colleges have it as a club sport, but it’s growing in the NCAA. The boys are heroes to the girls, and the girls version is the most exciting women’s sport being played. Tough chicks are great! LAX!!!

    • sgtbilko

      I’m sorry, but “Lacrosse is the answer” sounds like a Bob and Ray routine.

      (No, they’re not like Jay and Silent Bob. Except on occasion.)

  • sgtbilko

    There has also been an increase in single parenting, a decrease in household wealth, and an increased focus on getting into college (preferably an elite college). All of this has probably taken away a lot of the parental time and money needed to keep kids involved in high-school sports, especially physically demanding and time-consuming sports like football.

    Fear of concussion probably plays a role, but my hunch is that the risk of trouble tomorrow is not as big an influence on behavior as the certitude of no money and no time today.