Quantity is another story. In the fall of 2017, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr received an email from his son’s junior high announcing that there wasn’t enough interest from students at three nearby middle schools to form a single eighth-grade tackle football team.
That got Pielke – who blogs about sports and previously wrote a book on doping –wondering: was America experiencing what he calls “Peak Football”, the moment of maximum participation in the sport? Examining NHFS data, he saw that high school football participation increased every year from 1998 to 2008, peaking at roughly 1.14m players. Since then, however, the number of athletes has dropped every year except 2014.
Comparing those numbers to US Census Bureau population data for 2010 to 2016, Pielke found a similar pattern: the percentage of American boys ages 14-17 playing high school football peaked at 13.2% in 2013 and fell to 12.7% in 2016. Over the last decade, Pielke saw, participation was up in a handful of football hotbeds, including Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. But it had dropped in 40 states, sometimes by surprisingly large margins: 9.5% in California, 11.6% in New Jersey, 21.6% in Michigan, 23% in Ohio and 55% in Vermont.
Since 2014 alone, high school football has lost more than 45,000 participants – roughly 600 teams’ worth of players. “Demographically, it seems pretty convincing that we are in the early part of a process that started a decade ago where football is just not was popular as it used to be among youth,” Pielke said. “Exactly why it is happening is a tricky question.”
That may be so, but a lot of parents seem to be centering on a particular answer these days.
In 2016, a University of Massachusetts survey found that 65% of the public considers sports concussions and head injuries to be a major problem; that 87% believe that CTE is a serious public health issue; and that 48% think the statement that “tackle football is a safe activity for children during high school” is either certainly or probably false.
Pielke said that the two steepest high school football participation drops this decade came in 2012 – when Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, later diagnosed with CTE, committed suicide – and 2015, when the Will Smith feature film Concussion, detailing the NFL’s alleged denial and dismissal of CTE research, was released in theaters.
“Was that causal?” Pielke said. “I don’t know. That’s a tricky social science question. But the notion that the more people talk about head injury risk in football, the more parents and kids making decisions to play are aware of that risk isn’t outlandish.”
It’s sinking in. Don’t take my word for that, either. Here’s somebody with a large social media following expressing concern.
College football, you have a problem.