Focus on head injuries leads to changes to high school football, declining participation

CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod sits down with Mike and JJ to talk about high school football and what grade the sport would get right now after recent rule changes in California.

The sport of football presents a difficult conundrum.

It is, on the one hand, by far the most popular sport in America in both viewership and participation. Last year, 71 of the 100 most-watched television programs in the country were football games.

However, it’s also a sport in decline, with fewer kids playing every year—both around the country and in Long Beach—mostly due to new attention on the risk of injuries.

The league that governs local high school sports has enacted new rules this year that officials hope will reduce the number of hits to the head, while coaches hope popularity and interest in the sport remain strong.

Participation

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,035,942 high school boys played football last year—the most of any boys’ sports by more than 400,000. Still, 22,000 fewer boys played in 2017 than in 2016, and 55,000 fewer than played in 2015.

In California, 94,286 boys played high school football last year, down 13,000 from a decade ago and continuing a year-by-year dip of about 3,000 students per year over the last three years. If that trend continues for another decade, high school programs will shutter across the state.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, football numbers have taken a dip as well. Last year the Long Beach Poly football program cut its junior varsity program due to low participation.

But in Long Beach the sport is still popular: 984 LBUSD boys played football in the 2017-18 school year, more than any other sport.

There are any number of reasons parents are less inclined to let their children play the sport, but there’s no doubt that the biggest is an increased awareness of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Numerous studies have shown that repeated blows to the head can cause long-term health issues, even for those who only play football for a brief period of time.

Wilson coach Mark Ziegenhagen played football at Long Beach State, and has been coaching locally for over a decade. His son, Logan, is a linebacker for the Bruins this season. Ziegenhagen said he never decided if his son would play football or not.

“It’s his choice,” Ziegenhagen said. “He wanted to play football. My first kid, I forced him to play football, and he gave it up after his freshman year. The second time around, I left it up to him. (Logan) grew into rugby as a 7th and 8th grader instead of Pop Warner. It was all him, and he’s grown to love the game. His mom has bought in. She knows I love the game, and she wants him to do what he wants to do.”

Adjustments

The best science currently available suggests that football helmets do not protect players from head injuries or from long-term conditions like CTE. Changes in the game from the NFL level all the way down to Pop Warner have emphasized a new tackling style that puts the point of contact on the shoulder or chest, rather than the head.

Additionally, the CIF Southern Section has implemented a rule this year that limits Southern California high school football teams to 45 minutes of full-contact practice a week, cutting down the number of times linemen bang heads.

“You gotta be careful with those hitting drills,” Millikan coach Justin Utupo said earlier this month. “We just don’t have the guys to do that rodeo stuff. You’re asking for concussions.”

By “rodeo stuff,” Utupo means the classic Oklahoma and Bull-In-The-Ring drills that put teammates head-to-head at full speed in confined spaces.

“Obviously you want them to be safe, but you have to teach tackling,” Utupo said. “You can still get your tackling done in (individual practice).”

Ziegenhagen agreed that the new rule is changing how teams conduct practice. Wilson has been in shells (helmet, pads and shorts) for most of its practices to cut down on players hitting each other, and the ground, during drills.

The Bruins have also been running more offensive team drills with upside down trash cans replacing defenders.

Limiting hitting during practice isn’t the only rule change; local fans will also see stricter referees this season.

Last month at a local high school football practice, the head coach brought in a high school referee for a rules discussion with his team. The referee explained sportsmanship and equipment rules before addressing the “unnecessary roughness” elephant in the room.

In instances when an offensive player is vulnerable and not looking at the defender, the referee said the resulting violent hits are something “we’re trying to get out of the game.”

If the running back is looking to catch the ball, and a defensive back is closing in fast from the blind side, the referee advised players to lead with their hands instead of their shoulders and head. Any hard hit in that instance would bring a penalty flag.

The Future

Many pundits have suggested taking the helmets out of the game entirely. Without repeated head-to-head collisions that are more likely to occur with helmets, the risk of CTE could drop significantly.

Rugby players and the “leatherheads” of football’s past show that a violent game can still be played without a hard-shelled helmet.

“We’re teaching the game a lot safer now,” Ziegenhagen said. “We’re teaching how to tackle right. The equipment is better. And, the rules are better for the game. We’re trying to make the game better for kids.”

Coaches see benefits

Lakewood coach Mike Christensen has coached at public schools and private schools on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. He’s a true believer in the value of football as a way of reaching and teaching young athletes.

“Football is the most important thing for these young people now that’s left,” he said. “I’m not just saying that because I coach football. It’s the only place for discipline and structure, accountability. It teaches them a desire and an ability to push through discomfort.”

Ziegenhagen agrees, and said the wins and losses aren’t the most important thing.

“Football is about learning how to be a man,” he said. “We’re preparing them for life after high school. Everybody always asks me how we’re going to be this year, and I heard a coach say years ago, ‘I’ll let you know in 10 years when these kids come back and tell me how they’re doing in life.’ That’s what it’s about.”

No one knows what the sport of football is going to look like in five years, and it may take a whole generation to see its popularity decline. If the recent rule changes at every level are any indication, it’s going to look a lot less physical in the future.

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