American football is modern-day bullfighting. Athletes are killing themselves for fans’ entertainment and their teams’ profits. It’s not a secret that the majority of former NFL players have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – brain degeneration from repeated head trauma, such as concussions and subconcussive hits.
I’d love to see the NFL shift from tackle football to flag football, and create a cascading effect through every level of play. Unfortunately, teams are making too much money off their players to make such a drastic change that could risk alienating their audience. From a business perspective, I understand their logic, but from a human perspective, I can’t wrap my brain around a sport where the risk of developing CTE doubles every 2.6 years that some plays contact football.
Fewer Athletes are Playing Football
While a top-down approach would have yielded fast results at all levels of play, what it appears we’re seeing is a bottom-up change in American football.
Even before the COVID pandemic, there was a 48% decline in the number of people playing tackle football in the U.S. between 2006 and 2018. These numbers include players ages 6 and over, so it’s not reflective of high school athletes; however, it supports the data that parents are more concerned about preventing concussions, so they’re less likely to allow their kids to play.
The latest survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) shows that the 2021-22 school year was the first time less than 1 million high school students in the U.S. participated in 11-player high school football. It’s encouraging to see that the number of people playing this dangerous game are decreasing.
High Schools Don’t Have Enough Players for a Football Team
At some high schools, the number of students who want to play football had decreased so much that the school doesn’t have enough players to have a team. The total number of high schools with an 11-player football team dropped from 14,247 to 13,733. It appears some of these school shifted to offering 6-, 8-, or 9-player football instead, but others dropped teams completely.
This past fall, there were multiple high schools that started their football season and had to cut the season short because they didn’t have enough players. Holland High School in Michigan ended its varsity football season after only 4 games. The roster was filled with sophomores when few upperclassmen went out for the team. When the coaches noticed the substantial different between their players’ size and skill development compared to their opponents, they shortened the football season due to the risk of injury.
Likewise, Bellevue High School in Ohio cancelled the remainder of its varsity football season due to a “limited number of healthy players.” There were only 20 players on the varsity team, 2 of which had suffered concussions, and the senior captain was playing while wearing a cast.
Alleman High School in Illinois has already cancelled its varsity football 2023 season due to low student participation. The varsity team had 30 players in fall 2022, including 10 graduating seniors. The school won’t have a varsity team in the fall due to their concern for the health and safety of the remaining players.
There may be additional factors that are contributing to decreased participation in high school football, such as the decrease in population of high-school-aged children, the decline in enrollment at rural high schools, budget constraints at schools, and players deciding that football isn’t worth their time if they don’t get much playing time.
Is Football Taking Advantage of the Disadvantaged?
Where high schoolers are more likely to continue to participate in football is in rural areas and where it’s culturally ingrained for youngsters to participate in tackle football. A study also found that black Americans and people will no more than a high school education were not as negative about tackle football compared to white people and people with a college education.
“For less-advantaged people, football is seen as one of the only ways they can get ahead in society, which may explain why they support it for kids.”
Reading this made me wonder if American football will turn into a sport where the educated and the wealthy won’t play, but rather take advantage of the fact that some people are willing to risk their brains and their lives in the hopes of creating a better future for themselves and their families. This prospect makes me sad, and a little sick.
Football Participation is Down But Viewership Isn’t
While people are not playing football as much, there doesn’t appear to be a decrease in people watching it. In the U.S. alone, 112 million people watched the Super Bowl in 2022.
As we’re seeing a decrease in the number of people playing tackle football in high school, I wonder if these people will be less likely to want to watch it as adults. I wonder if parents limiting their kids to only playing flag football as children will lead to a demand from fans to shift the NFL to flag football as well. While I would love this change to happen instantly, I suspect this type of shift will take generations to occur.
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