High-School Coaches Lament Decline in Football Participation

By Mark Walsh — November 28, 1990 7 min read

The football squad at Huntley (Ill.) High School started out with only 13 members this season.

After suffering several injuries in its first few games, including some serious enough to send three players to the hospital, the team forfeited two games to give players time to regain their health.

In the very next game, however, several more players suffered serious injuries--including a broken leg, a concussion, and a separated shoulder. At that point, the team was down to only 10 players.

“We finally had to ask, ‘Is it morally right to take these kids out there again?”’ said Terry Awrey, the football coach at the 227-student school about 45 minutes outside of Chicago.

The answer was no, the coach and the school administration decided. The rest of the season was canceled.

Across the country, as state football championships are concluding this month, many coaches and athletic directors are lamenting a decline in participation among student-athletes in a sport often viewed as an integral part of the character of the American high school.

Coaches and sports officials point to several reasons for the decline. Demographics is one, they say, noting that high schools are feeling the impact of a low birthrate among the classes of students currently in the high-school grades.

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

Nationally, the number of high-school students opting to play football declined by 3,912 participants last year to a total of 947,757, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In the past 15 years, participation in football has declined more than 16 percent, the federation reports. In the 1975-76 school year, 1,132,082 students played football.

Football remains the most popular boys’ sport in sheer numbers. The 947,000 participants far surpassed the 517,217 boys who played on high-school basketball teams last year.

But basketball requires only five players, while it takes at least 11 players to field a football team (although some smaller schools still play 9-man, 8-man, and 6-man football).

Part of the reason for the decline in football participation can surely be explained by demographics, observers say. According to the U.S. Education Department, the number of students in grades 9-12 has declined from about 15.6 million in 1975 to about 12.5 million this year.

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, discounted the theory that high-school football is losing popularity among participants, 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 said. “The basic features are still there.”

A frequent suggestion is that the introduction of soccer into youth athletic programs over the past two decades created a major competitor to football for students’ interest.

The new sport was similar enough to football to entice many youngsters, without the heavy body contact and, thus, less exposure to injury.

Across the country, as some high schools were dropping football, many were adding soccer programs, according to the federation. 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.

Soccer now ranks sixth among high-school sports in boys’ participation, after football, basketball, baseball, track and field, and wrestling.

Soccer also is the sixth-most-popular girls’ sport, the federation says, with 111,711 girls in 4,128 girls’ soccer programs. (Basketball is number one. Girls who play football are included in the boys’ statistics.)

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 their centerpiece for homecoming and other traditions.

But, as Mr. 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.

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

Even Mr. Schindler admits, “Kids have more things to get into today.”

Lafayette Evans, director of physical education and athletics for the Detroit public schools, said 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.”

“Or,” he lamented, “often by the time we get them, the dope man already has them.”

Of Detroit’s 22 high schools, 21 have football teams, and Mr. Evans doubts the programs are in danger of being canceled. Community pride and support remain high, he said.

However, he noted, none of the schools has had enough players or coaches to support a junior-varsity squad during the past two years.

Sam Jones, director of the Interhigh Athletic League of the District of Columbia public schools, says that tightened academic-eligibility rules for extracurricular activities, adopted by many states and districts in recent years as an academic reform, may have had the unintended effect of discouraging sports participation.

“When you have the 2.0 [minimum grade-point-average] rule like we have, you need a lot of encouragement to play football,” he said. To remedy the problem, he said, he wishes the district would ease the rule or provide more tutors for athletes.

Low turnout for football is not confined to urban 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, according to the head coach, Gene Cichowski.

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, said Walt King, the athletic director.

“We had to dress some of the junior-varsity kids as backup varsity players, and we still canceled five games due to injuries,” he said. Most of the junior-varsity players were 9th graders, he added.

Mr. King cited a drop in enrollment at the small school, which has 180 boys in the high-school grades, and the fact that “some kids who played previously just decided not to play this year.”

Participation is not down everywhere, however.

In growing suburban areas where school enrollment is booming, football still attracts large turnouts of prospective players.

High-school football is also holding on to its place as a shared cultural rite, especially in the thousands of small towns where Friday-night games are an institution, as documented in the recent book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream, in which the reporter H.G. Bissinger described the fanatical support of the team at Permian High School in Odessa, Tex.

Participation remains high in Texas and other states where footall has traditionally been popular, such as in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“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,” said Bailey Marshall, president of theUniversity Interscholastic League, the sports-governing body in Texas.

Mr. Awrey of Huntley High in Illinois said 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 were competing. Next season, he said, they will become independent.

That is, he added, if there is a next season.

“We will try to pick up schools comparable to our size,” Mr. Awrey said. But, he said, that will occur only if there is sufficient interest among students in continuing the program.

“To go through this every year is hard,” he said. “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.”

Noting that his small school can only support one fall sport for boys, Mr. Awrey said, “Some people want soccer, some want golf.”

“What we need is for our community to rally around one particular sport,” he explained. “If it is decided it is not going to be football, then so be it.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as High-School Coaches Lament Decline in Football Participation