The Decline of High School Football in America

PHOTO: High School Football player in Texas, courtesy of Mauricio Pastor
PHOTO: High School Football player in Texas, courtesy of Mauricio Pastor

There’s nothing more consistent with the collective image of small town America than high school football.

Movies ranging from Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights to Facing the Giants and The Blindside have all immortalized the status symbol that accompanies being one of the “Boys of Fall” who were easily spotted in their letter jackets walking down a crowded school hallway, generally with the blonde high school heart throb close by. Their image endured for generations and has become an icon of previous decades.

It’s no surprise that in many communities watching 11th and 12th graders fight for 40 minutes on a 100-yard field is the biggest thing going on most weeks, but few Americans realize that high school football is even protected by Federal law. The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 and Public Law 89-800 prohibit the broadcasting of NFL games within 75 miles of any high school football game on Friday nights between September and early December. Because most populated areas of the United States have at least one high school football game within a 75-mile radius, and because broadcasting is an integral part of the NFL’s business model (roughly half of the league’s revenue comes from television contracts), this effectively prohibits the playing of NFL games in competition with high school football.

Like all things, however, it seems as if the “glory days” of which Bruce Springsteen reminisced about have truly come and gone for high school football in America.

In many areas of the nation, the grandeur of Friday night lights simply isn’t as bright as it once was and fewer American high school aged boys are interested in running beneath them before a hometown crowd — this is not to say that it is no longer popular, but it’s unquestionably in steep decline.

Much of this decline can be attributed to repeated studies similar to one published by the Boston University School of Medicine, which advised that children under 14 should not play tackle football, arguing that their brains are not fully developed, and myelin (nerve cell insulation) is at greater risk in shear when the brain is young. Myelination is completed at about 15 years of age. Children also have larger heads relative to their body size and weaker necks

An NFL-funded study reported that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions per 10,000 games or practices, nearly twice as many as college football players.

In February of this year, a reporter asked singer Justin Timberlake if he would ever allow his 2-year-old son to play football. His response, “Uh, he will never play football. No, no.”

Timberlake is not alone, as countless thousands of parents have outright forbade their children from participating in peewee, as well as high school football. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 53% of all mothers are steering their children away from football, up from 40% of mothers only four years ago.

According to Reuters, participation in high school football peaked in 2008 at 1.11 million athletes and this past season declined by nearly 5%.

However, it’s not just high school football that is seeing a drop in interest — even the NFL is reporting continuing decline in viewership, and though it is true that the wave of controversy surrounding the pregame National Anthem has significantly effected interest, the reality remains that modern Americans simply aren’t as interested in football as they once were.

Why are Americans increasingly disinterested in football?  There are numerous factors, but not the least of which is soccer.  It’s safer, trendier and is a female-friendly sport.

Regardless of the reasons why, it is indisputable that high school football is on the decline throughout the nation and Appalachia is not immune to this reality.  It was recently announced that no fewer than three Virginia high schools would not be fielding a football team this year that had in previous years due to a lack of interest from the students.

Just as football replaced baseball as the nation’s sport, it seems that football, too, is on its way to being replaced.

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  1. Good riddance too. It’s about time that this sport become right-sized. For decades Americans have all but worshipped this sport and it’s players as if it came from Almighty God himself. SMH.

  2. I have a son who is a senior this year and played his entire life and has decided not to play this year. He’s been recruited as a legitimate D2 lineman and probably low level D1 and is done. He’s broken state bench press records for his age and won big man challenges at D1 camps in VA but it’s over for him. He’s got academic scholarships and needs his brain to work the rest of his life after football.

    Football has to change in order to survive and the game of the future will not look much like what we see right now. The combination of NFL SJW politics and the scientific studies of brain injuries was enough for him and it is too for others. Sadly part of America dies when football dies but unless they change the game and they are reluctantly to do so football will die because the mega lawsuits are coming down the road soon and the lawyers will win and it’s eventually going to be too expensive to field a team.

    Knowing someone who had repeated concussions from football and a few years later took their own life because their head wouldn’t work anymore is about as real as you can get.

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