As concerns about the health and safety of football players continue to generate headlines, many states are experiencing drops in participation at the high school level. Maine and Oregon are two states dealing with drops steeper than the national average.
The Bangor Daily News reports that in Maine, participation fell 11 percent from 2010 to 2014, a rate more than five times the national average. The total number of players taking part in the sport dropped by more than 400 student-athletes, according to NFHS data.
“More schools are playing football, but fewer kids are playing football per school,” said Steve Waceken, Head Coach at Stearns High School. “I think with the NFL and the concussion talks, some parents are saying no, and kids aren’t really fighting back and are either playing another sport or no sport at all.”
Despite the Maine Principals' Association taking steps to increase safety—such as limiting contact in practices—player health is still a major problem. Additional factors include a declining state population, and sport specialization, and as a result, some of the smaller programs in the state struggle to even keep 30 players on their roster.
“I think it’s harder and harder to not only start a program but even sustain a program with the emphasis on head injuries and concussions and the fact the vast majority of schools in the state are seeing a decline of enrollment so you have fewer kids to draw from,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association.
The state of Oregon is also seeing problems, with football participation dropping by 6.8 percent from 2007 to 2014, according to an article on Oregonlive.com. Youth participation in some leagues across the state has plummeted by more than 20 percent in the last five years as well.
“I don’t think there is any one factor,” OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett said. “Certainly, the health issues related to football impact the game. There’s no doubt about that. It’s substantiated that moms aren’t letting their kids play football because they’re concerned about them.”
To publicize newly-formed safety initiatives, some youth leagues in Oregon are partnering with marketing firms. In addition, they are also using flag football to entice first- and second-graders to try out the sport.
“The thinking behind that is we find ourselves competing with year-round soccer and lacrosse club teams,” Beaverton Youth Football president Todd Valencia said. “They’re getting those kids really, really young. So our thought process around that is if we wait until children are in the third grade for them to find out about football, then we’re behind the curve.”
Regardless of the specific efforts being taken, coaches agree that schools—and states—have to think about the big picture when it comes to football participation.
“As a head coach, you start questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” Southridge High School Head Coach Doug Dean said. “Then you start talking with other programs, like a well-respected Lake Oswego, and you go, ‘Well, maybe it’s not about me. Maybe it’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed systemically.’”