End Of The Game?

February 01, 1991 4 min read

The answer was no. Awrey and the school administration decided to cancel the rest of the season.

Across the country, many football coaches and athletic directors are lamenting a decline in the number of students participating in football, the sport often considered an integral part of the American high school.

They point to several reasons for the decline. Demographics is one; high schools are feeling the impact of a slump in the birthrate in the early 1970s.

In addition, many potential football players are choosing to participate in other sports, often ones with less physical contact. Others are apparently saying no to high school athletics altogether, spending their free time, instead, with their cars, afterschool jobs, or other activities.

Nationally, the number of high school students opting to play football declined by 3,912 last year to a total of 947,757, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Over the past 15 years, participation in football has declined more than 16 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. high schools with football programs declined from 16,004 in 1975-76 to 13,986 last year, a 12.6 percent drop.

Dick Schindler, assistant director of the national federation, discounts the theory that high school football is losing its popularity, arguing that the demographic decline is the major factor in the shifting numbers. “I think football still has the same attraction today as it always has,’' he says. “The basic features are still there.’'

Others disagree and suggest that the introduction of soccer into school athletic programs over the past two decades has created a major competitor to football. The new sport is similar enough to football to entice many youngsters and is without the heavy body contact that often results in injury. In 1975-76, 3,478 schools had boys’ soccer programs, with 115,811 participants. In 1989-90, 220,777 boys at 6,561 schools were playing soccer.

The soccer season is normally in the fall, at the same time as football, fueling the perception that it steals potential players from the more traditional American sport. Some high schools that have dropped football now use soccer as the centerpiece for their homecoming events and other traditions.

But, as Schindler notes, soccer can be played by smaller boys “who never would have played football anyway.’' He argues that no hard data exist to confirm that soccer has lured participants from football.

Soccer aside, some coaches and athletic officials suggest that societal changes are having a major impact on students’ interest in the game--perhaps especially in urban high schools.

Lafayette Evans, director of physical education and athletics for the Detroit public schools, says other options are more appealing to many urban youngsters than the disciplined regimen involved in playing football. “Kids are maturing faster now, and they have more things to do than they did 15 years ago,’' he said. “They can go to McDonald’s and get a job.’' Many, he says, are doing far less constructive things. “Often,’' he laments, “by the time we get them, the dope man already has them.’'

Of Detroit’s 22 high schools, 21 have football teams, and Evans doubts the programs are in danger of being canceled. He notes, however, that none of the schools has had enough players or coaches to support a junior-varsity squad during the past two years.

Low turnout for football is not confined to urban school districts.

At New Trier High School, a traditional football powerhouse in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, only 35 students turned out this year for varsity football, instead of the usual 55 to 60. And at the Bullis School in well-to-do Potomac, Md., near Washington, 24 students showed up for the first practice this fall, instead of the usual 65.

“We had to dress some of the junior-varsity kids as backup varsity players, and we still canceled five games due to injuries,’' says Bullis athletic director Walt King.

Participation is not down everywhere, however. In growing suburban areas where school enrollment is booming, football still attracts large turnouts of prospective players. And in the thousands of small towns where Friday-night games are an institution, high school football is holding on to its place as a shared cultural rite. This phenomenon is documented in the recent book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream, in which reporter H.G. Bissinger described the fanatical support of the team at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.

“We may see some of the better athletes participating in other activities who in the past would have been in football, as well, but our figures have not indicated any major drops,’' says Bailey Marshall, president of the University Interscholastic League, the sports governing body in Texas.

But Illinois is a world away from Texas. Awrey of Huntley High says that, in addition to canceling the rest of their football season this year, school officials also decided their team had too few participants for the conference in which they’ve been competing. Next season, they will become independent.

That is, Awrey adds, if there is a next season.

“To go through this every year is hard,’' he says. “We decided to set a minimum. If we do not have 20 serious kids by this summer who want to play, we will cancel the football program.’'

Mark Walsh, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as End Of The Game?