College football kicked off in full force Saturday, and continues tonight and Monday night. But if you’re like me and the parent of a kid playing football, you know the past month has been replete with practices, jamborees and lots of sweaty laundry.
Fall is football, yet this year its future seems ever more an open question as youth participation continues to falter, teams struggle to field enough kids, and even star players announce their abrupt retirements.
Overall, high school sports last year took a hit. Axios Sports this past week reported that the National Federation of State High School Associations has found that participation in high school sports dropped this past year. That’s the first time that has happened in 30 years.
The drop is felt most acutely when it comes to 11-man football teams. According to the association, participation in that sport fell for a fifth consecutive year. Its total of 1,006,013 players is the lowest mark in 20 years.
But there are blips to this. Teams that play with fewer players on the field have seen their numbers increase. Even girls’ 11-player teams are seeing higher numbers.
Football is falling out of favor largely as concerns rise about its level of violence and the health of its players. Ayden’s football coaches, staring into the eyes of their 12- and 13-year-olds — and their parents — didn’t sugarcoat it. “Football is not a contact sport. Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport.”
According to my colleagues over at Business North Carolina, North Carolina high schools had 26,929 participants last year for football, down 5.7 percent from the previous year. According to HighSchoolOT.com, football participation is down almost 25 percent in the past 10 years.
That’s a problem at some high schools that no longer have enough kids turn out to field teams. Like college, football is typically a big money generator at the gate, raising funds that get shared with other school teams. So when the football team folds, the athletics department takes a big hit.
Even at the youth level, some kids are being turned away because there aren’t enough players to fill the roster at certain age levels. Ayden’s Sandhills Optimist league likely won’t have a team from North Moore in his age group this year.
Ayden is big for his age, maybe the biggest kid on the field these days. And his wrestling experience last year has supplemented his football training, conditioning and awareness. But do I still worry about him getting hurt? Absolutely. Could he also twist an ankle getting off the bus or wrestling with the dog? Absolutely. The unintended and unplanned happen every day. I’m already debating getting him knee braces as a precaution, since he plays on the front line and is vulnerable to someone rolling into him.
I weigh all this and still find the merits outweigh the worries. Football is a hard sport. It takes personal commitment, commitment to the guy next to you and the team as a whole. It takes brawn but brains as well. The coaches are instilling discipline and respect first and football second.
A kid committed to athletic pursuit is likely to be more focused at school, more attentive and considerate to others, and more tired at night. They are learning life skills that will serve them well regardless of whether they pursue the sport. This is true regardless of the sport, regardless of gender.
You can say football is a brutish, gladiatorial endeavor without purpose. The careers of star players like Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski, cut short by debilitating injuries slow to heal, are being hailed as some seminal moment in a sport replete with them.
But football — not the clownish buffoonery and overhyped puffery but honest to goodness gridiron football — still has much to offer our kids. 300-yard sprints in August heat and tackling drills in full gear might not look much like character building, but just wait until those same kids run up against a bit of adversity in life.
No, most of these kids will never play on Sunday, if they even make it all the way to Friday night lights. But tenacity? Character? Confidence?
You can’t help these days but watch a bunch of tired, dirty boys, their mops matted solid with sweat, walk off the field, their cleats scuffing the gravel, and not see the subtle smug smiles of achievement. What it is is football.
Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or email@example.com.