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Nationwide participation in school football drops for second straight year

barry chin/globe staff file

Football remained the most popular high school sport for boys during the 2017-18 school year, but its participant numbers declined for the second straight year.

There were 1,035,942 participants in 11-player high school football in 2017-18, according to the latest National Federation of State High School Association athletics survey. That represented a 2 percent drop from 2016-17. The decline from 2015 to 2016 was 2.5 percent.

“While we continue to try to make football a viable option, we understand that some parents continue to have a concern about the physical nature of the sport,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the NFHS. “Certainly, the goal is to involve more and more young people in sports and activity programs, because the benefits of participating in sports and activities is the same whether it is football, baseball, lacrosse, music, band, or debate.”


Football safety has been a major issue at all levels of the game, and several medical professionals have been outspoken in their belief that the game should be avoided, particularly at the youth levels. Twenty schools in the US dropped football prior to the 2017 season.

“We are encouraged that the decline in high school football has slowed due, in part, to our efforts in reducing the risk of injury in the sport,” Niehoff said.

“While there may be other reasons that students elect not to play football, we have attempted to assure student-athletes and their parents that thanks to the concussion protocols and rules in place in every state in the country, the sport of football is as safe as it ever has been.”

Top 10 boys sports
Sport Participants
Football (11-player) 1,035,942
Track and field 600,097
Basketball 551,373
Baseball 487,097
Soccer 456,362
Cross country 270,095
Wrestling 245,564
Tennis 158,151
Golf 144,024
Swimming and diving 138,935
SOURCE: National Federation of State High School Associations 

For the 29th consecutive year, the overall number of participants in high school sports across the United States increased, to a record 7,979,986.

High school athletes competed in 65 different sports in 2017-18, including 13 adapted for students with disabilities. There was a record number of girls playing high school sports — 3,415,306, which was 15,009 more than last year.


Outdoor track and field had the highest number of female participants with 488,592.

Top 10 girls sports
Sport Participants
Track and field 488,592
Volleyball 446,583
Basketball 412,407
Soccer 390,482
Softball (fast pitch) 367,861
Cross country 223,518
Tennis 190,768
Swimming and diving 175,594
Competitive spirit 162,669
Lacrosse 96,904
SOURCE: National Federation of State High School Associations 

Other takeaways from the survey:

■ The number of schools offering six-man or eight-man football increased.

■ Texas (824,619) narrowly edged California (819,625) as the state with the most high school athletes. Massachusetts was 11th with 227,046, and was ahead of Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Washington.

■   Outdoor track and field finished second in total participants to football, with 1,088,689.

■  Lacrosse numbers continued to rise, increasing to 210,217.

■  Volleyball numbers topped basketball for second among girls’ sports with 446,583 participants.

■   Soccer continued to spike in popularity, with 846,844 total participants, an increase of 8,271.

■   Ice hockey and rugby experienced slight declines. Ice hockey lost 140 participants, dropping to 44,669, while rugby saw 68 fewer players for a total of 2,593.

■   Another noticeable drop in numbers was basketball, down 16,893 players.

■   Several nontraditional sports saw leaps in the number of participants, including bowling (60,039), badminton (17,898), archery (10,460), and fencing (4,513).

■   Bass fishing hooked 1,957 participants across three states.

Top 10 states Massachusetts ranked 11th with 227,046.
State Participants
Texas 824,619
California 819,625
New York 378,065
Ohio 347,567
Illinois 338,848
Pennsylvania 319,867
Florida 311,361
Michigan 296,625
New Jersey 281,800
Minnesota 240,433
SOURCE: National Federation of State High School Associations 

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