Football has officially begun its slow but sure decline, sliding toward the disdain we now hold for boxing. Super Bowls, national collegiate championships, and Friday night lights in Texas are not disappearing anytime soon. But we are heading inexorably down the path where the only people left playing the sport will be the poor.
Youth football participation is dropping as never before, amid dramatic discoveries of irreversible brain damage, premature deaths, and suicides in former professional superstars. Even as a massive concussion lawsuit was settled between former players and the National Football League, retired stars increasingly say they would not let their boys play football. This week, ex-Packers great Brett Favre, only 44, told NBC’s “Today Show” he already has major memory lapses, such as forgetting his youngest daughter ever played soccer. He said if he had a son, he would be “real leery” of letting him play football.
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” last week reported that Pop Warner had its biggest two-year decline ever, falling from nearly 250,000 players to 225,000. USA Football for youth ages 6 to 14 fell from 3 million to 2.8 million. The National Sporting Goods Association, the trade association relied upon by the US Census for sports participation data, this year found a 13 percent decline in tackle football since 2011, with more than half the decline among 7- to 11-year-olds.
Massachusetts appears to be a ground zero for the decline. According to data posted by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of high school football players in the Commonwealth dropped 11.3 percent since the 2006-07 season, from 22,181 players to 19,667.
That is one of the biggest percentage drops in the nation. “It’s all anecdotal, but there has been a big change in the popularity of football,” said MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel. “More and more, we’re hearing from athletic directors that the best athletes are often no longer going on the football field.”
It is clear where they are going. While football dropped by about 2,500 players since 2006 to ’07, the number of boys playing lacrosse has increased by 1,700, the number of cross-country runners has increased by 1,100, and the number of soccer players has increased by 360. “Part of the appeal might be that whether you’re good at it or not, when you’re on the field you’re running around constantly, which a lot of kids seem to enjoy,” Wetzel said.
There have been noticeable drops in football in other New England states as well, such as Vermont. “Teams that may have had 30 to 40 players may now have more like 25 to 35,” said Bob Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association. “Some schools no longer have freshman teams. It’s not as if parents come up to me and personally say they are not going to let their son play football. But certainly, the issue of safety is a big consideration.”
But for which parents? Wetzel says it appears that the growth of boys’ lacrosse, from 165 schools seven years ago to 221 last year, indicates how deeply the concerns over football are changing sports culture in the suburbs, where youths generally have more education and recreation opportunities than their urban or rural counterparts. “These are the parents more likely to read the Globe and the Times about these concussions and then get concerned about their kid’s health and be more cautious,” Wetzel said. “Besides, high school sports don’t have the same place in society as elsewhere in the country. Nobody would write about ‘Friday Night Lights’ in Wellesley.”
As parents become more cautious, football will be left to communities with fewer options. This has always been true of boxing, where the gladiators tend to have nothing to lose. The current popularity of football on television and the high salaries of players mask the sport’s stratifications as surely as Muhammad Ali’s dancing in the ring concealed the brutality of boxing. Majority African-American teams essentially beat one another’s brains out in front of mostly white crowds and the white skybox elite.
The great sportswriter Red Smith once wrote that boxing was a thrilling sport, but “there is no quarrel here with those who sincerely regard it as vicious business that should have no place in a civilized society.”
If there are no major changes in how the game is played, parents who value their children’s brains will surely question football’s place in a civilized school. Those questions, while pronounced in Massachusetts, are beginning to be raised in places where football and tailgates much more symbolize autumn culture. While high school football does continue to grow in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alabama, it has declined in Nebraska, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
If football is declining not only in Massachusetts but also out in the Midwest, the national quarrel over the sport has only just begun.