High School Football — to Play or Not to Play?

With recent reports showing a national trend in declining participation in high school football, this topic has once again jumped to the forefront. Many families are debating whether or not their children should play football.

Starting in 2015, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the nationally recognized body that oversees interscholastic sports, began reporting declines in participation of 11-player football. In each succeeding year, the NFHS has reported slight declines in participation. A more substantial statistic is that participation has dropped 6.7 percent since its peak in 2009. However, it is important to note that currently, “with 1,036,842 participants, 11-player football remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys in high school by a large margin,” as per the NFHS website.

Frequent high-profile coverage on the dangers associated with football—like concussions and brain disease—might be one of the main reasons football participation has been affected at the scholastic level.

“Public knowledge about the NFL and college-level head injuries and trauma and the press … all had an effect [on the sport], and athletes and parents have had to make more choices,” says Dr. Matthew Levine, a surgeon and sports medicine orthopedic specialist from the Mid-Maryland Musculoskeletal Institute, a division of The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in Frederick, MD.

Dr. Levine disagrees with the idea that parents are unnecessarily afraid of having their sons play football, but does believe they are now more well-informed. Dr. Levine believes the news reports and medical studies detailing the effects on concussions to the brain are a benefit to parents and athletes, because they now “understand what might happen [if a concussion occurs during football], whereas previously, that information wasn’t known.”

Dr. Matt Jepson, a primary care sports physician also from the Mid-Maryland Musculoskeletal Institute, concurs that while the topic of concussions caused by football remains a hot-button issue today, the fact of the matter is, “We’re talking about somebody’s brain. People don’t understand. It’s scary. How much risk are we seeing with concussions?”

Dr. Jepson mentioned how a recent study by Dr. Andrew Peterson from the sports medicine program at the University of Iowa concluded that there was no major difference in concussions sustained in flag football versus tackle football. Despite the availability of multiple medical research and studies on concussions, “We [still] don’t know enough. People are apprehensive when there is not enough information [to make an informed decision.]”

Yet not everything is doom and gloom in the world of football as is being currently reported. There is room for awareness, education and informed decisions.

One positive aspect has resulted from the reported statistics that high schools are either canceling their football programs altogether or struggling to recruit new members. Both Dr. Levine and Dr. Jepson alluded to the fact that the ongoing medical research and reports of football-related concussions has resulted in a greater awareness of risks and preventative measures. Parents are strongly encouraged to do their research with their student athletes and discuss findings together before deciding whether to play high school football.

Student athletes and parents have many resources at their fingertips to help them make informed decisions on participation. One such resource is the Heads Up initiative, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which disseminates educational concussion materials to scholastic sports programs. (See here for more information: www.cdc.gov/headsup/index.html).

Another option? Have an informative discussion with your child’s coaches. Stefan Green, assistant coach for Bishop O’Connell High School’s JV football team, recommends that parents “get involved and interrogate the coaches.” Ask questions like “How are you making football safer for my child?”

Making sure coaches are actively teaching methods to help protect their players could be a good solution for putting parents’ minds at ease and increasing participation. In fact, Green, who has two teenage sons who play for O’Connell, took up coaching because he didn’t like what coaches were doing—he wanted to make it a safer sport. Green says that he “stresses to his players how to tackle without using the head” and coaches his team this way. He makes sure players practice safe ways to tackle with minimum contact during practice each week.

And part of the problem with football injuries in high school is that parents are waiting until high school before they let their kids play football. Coach Green says that when half the team hasn’t played before, it becomes dangerous. Middle school football is controlled by weight and age, so he recommends parents enroll their kids at least one year in middle school to lessen the chance for injury in high school.

Local coaches are urging student athletes and parents to still keep the positive aspects of the sport in mind. Football has been weaved into the history of the U.S. as a beloved national pastime.

Coach Brown, head coach of the Watkins Mill Wolverines, believes the love of the sport and the benefits of playing the sport outweigh any fear or panic from the possibility of sustaining concussions during football. “Football gives kids the opportunity for hard work and diversity. The world is a better place due to football,” he says emphatically.

Coach Green shares a similar sentiment, noting “[Football] is the ultimate team sport. Unlike other sports such as basketball, where you can have one person running up and down the court taking control of the shots, football requires you to depend on your teammates to be successful,” says Green. Knowing how to work together as a team is essential in life.

High School Varsity football coach Trey Taylor from Fairfax High School in Fairfax, VA is concerned that the media reports detailing the brain disease and suicides of NFL players has caused unnecessary alarm which has, in turn, had a direct effect on participation in high school football. During his 11 years spent as an assistant coach and the most recent 12 years as head coach, Coach Taylor has not encountered players or parents who made decisions to not play football due to injury or fear of injury. He believes the lack of participation seemed to “mostly come from people who have never tried the sport and are basing their decisions on media reports and conversations with people whose kids don’t play football.”

In fact, the NFHS reports only numbers of students who have chosen to participate in high school football. The number of student athletes who have initially played football and chose not to come back versus the number of students who attended recruitment events and never initially played football and chose not to play at all does not seem to be reported anywhere. If this data were available, it would surely help student athletes and parents make better decisions.

Coach Taylor is disappointed that the media has chosen to emphasize the negatives in football without spending equal time talking about the benefits of football. “It is the greatest team sport—where individuals must put aside their desire for self and work for the team. Football requires a selfless mentality that a lot of kids today struggle with.”

Despite the problems reported in football and the reality that the face of scholastic football is changing throughout the United States, Coach Brown is confident things will work out in the end. “I think the future is bright. It’s an awesome sport [with] many parallels to life. It’s true that participation has decreased, but it’s not a huge alarming [statistic]. Football is still going strong.”

The final piece of the puzzle involves an action that many parents are uncomfortable with—involving their children in the decision-making process. Parents are wired to make decisions on behalf of their children to protect them and offer them the best options in life. But in the case of high school (and middle school) football, where coverage has caused fear and alarm, a better way to handle things is to involve your children.

Research with your student athlete, talk to the coaches and athletic directors and ask the tough questions. Help your children understand the risks and benefits.

But you can’t make the final decision without: Attending a local high school football game. It’ll make the decision a lot tougher, but it’ll be a better and more informed decision. You will notice safety measures in place—it’s not the same football game played 20 or 30 years ago. And you’ll have a great time. The Star-Spangled Banner is played. You’ll notice friendship among parents, camaraderie among the student body, local community involvement, lots of cheering, cowbelling, arm chair quarterbacking and the smell of grilling hamburgers in the crisp fall air.

And the boys on the field having the time of their lives.


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