Racial Disparity Growing

February 8, 2019

It's no secret that participation rates in football are declining. As NFHS records show, 6.6 percent fewer high school players suited up in 2017–18 as compared to 2008–09. But the decline is being felt in some communities much more than others.

A recent article in The Atlantic took a close look at exactly which kids are walking away from football and which ones are still embracing it. It found that while higher-income white communities were losing players, that was not the case in lower-income African-American communities.

"A recent survey of 50,000 eighth-, tenth-, and 12th-grade students found that about 44 percent of black boys play tackle football, compared with 29 percent of white boys, as analyzed by the University of Michigan sociologist Philip Veliz. Football at the high-school level is growing in popularity in states with the highest shares of black people, while it’s declining in majority-white states. Other recent studies suggest that more black adults support youth tackle football than white adults."

At the college level, a similar disparity occurs. The article relays that "black athletes make up nearly half of all Division I college-football players, up from 39 percent in 2000. White athletes make up 37 percent, down from 51 percent."

The reason behind those shifting numbers often comes down to where parents see opportunities for their children. The Atlantic talked to Sam Taggard, who played football in college and now is a father of four in West Simsbury, Conn., an affluent suburb. 

“My kids aren’t playing,” Sam Taggard said  ... He says his 44-year-old body is still bearing the damage: He had back surgery two years ago and still feels the wear and tear of football on his body. He also did a clinical doctorate in physical therapy and has seen how debilitating head and neck injuries can be. Football requires kids to endanger their brain every single game, he said: “In football, you’re literally trying to decimate the person in front of you. If you’re not, you’re not playing well.”

The article also spoke with Shantavia Jackson, a single mom who is African-American and raising three sons in Colquitt County, Ga. All three play football, which she supports and encourages, seeing it as a way for them to get to college.

"Jackson knows football is dangerous. Her father broke his neck playing football when he was in high school; he was in the hospital for weeks and had to get screws in his spine. But she has a fatalistic attitude about injuries. Her boys could get injured in a car accident or a drive-by shooting. They could get injured if they joined gangs. “If it’s meant to happen, it’s going to happen. We can’t stop it,” she said. “You can get injured in any sport.” All she can do, she told me, is hug her boys and tell them she loves them before each game."

Jackson goes on to say that her sons' involvement in football will open doors that otherwise will remain closed.

"White parents may be doing the best thing for their sons by pulling them from tackle football. But parents of black boys in the rural South are facing a different reality, Jackson says. She believes that she is being a good parent if she gets her sons excited about tackle football. Their opportunities grow if they learn how to hit and tackle and run—how to be as much of a live wire—as well as they possibly can."

"This divergence paints a troubling picture of how economic opportunity—or a lack thereof—governs which boys are incentivized to put their body and brain at risk to play. Depending on where families live, and what other options are available to them, they see either a game that is too violent to consider or one that is necessary and important, if risky."

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