The trend line is enough to worry any red-blooded fan of America’s Sport: Since 2010, the number of boys playing high school football in the U.S. has been in decline. The drop hasn’t exactly been dramatic from year to year, but it has been steady.
That’s the upshot of a new national study conducted by the University of Colorado’s Professor Roger Pielke, director of the Boulder campus’s Sports Governance Center.
Says a CU news release quoting Pielke:
“From 1990 to 2009 it was a steady increase. Football was getting more and more participants and was the king of sports,” he says. “But in recent years we have seen things shift into reverse, with each year seeing a subsequent decline.”
The analysis, commissioned by the international sports governance consortium Play The Game and published on its website, is one in a series Pielke is conducting to explore the cultural, political and scientific issues surrounding the “future of football.” It looked at data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations, and U.S. Census data on the number of boys age 14 to 17.
Why the decline? It’s hard to say for sure; a number of factors may be in play, says Pielke. The most significant influence, he thinks, is growing awareness and concern among parents about football-related brain injury. A lot of news coverage has highlighted concussion risks and the cumulative effects on pro football players past and present like the late NFL legend Frank Gifford.
And then there’s the question on every political junkie’s mind — whether political dustups involving the NFL are turning off prep prospects and their parents: Pielke points out that most of the trend he detected predates the recent controversies. It was before then-San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to “take a knee” during the national anthem — and of course long before President Donald Trump’s remarks that other players who take a knee should be fired.
That said, politics could come into play, Pielke says:
“Sports has historically avoided partisan politics. It has been unique in that way, and that has brought people together. If you turn the NFL into a referendum on Donald Trump or Colin Kaepernick, some fraction of the American public may vote with their feet and stop letting their kids play. It just adds to what is already a swirling set of issues around football.”
If perchance Pielke’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he has been at the cross-currents of politics and another profession — his own — academia. In a parallel endeavor, Pielke has been among the academics challenging some of the prevailing assmptions about climate change.