High school football participation is declining

No matter what happens, the last few years will likely be remembered as a transitionary period in football, one where old practices were left behind. The discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and the National Football League’s subsequent mishandling of that research has not only changed the way schools/teams deal with head injuries and concussions but changed the perception of football as a youth sport.

Those safety concerns are just one reason why participation in high school football is shrinking. According to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), while the number of high school sports participants has been increasing slowly over the last four years, the number of high school football participants has dropped from 103,725 in 2015 to 91,305 this season.

“I think we’re genuinely concerned about what this might look like in five years,” CIF Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod said. “We need to keep addressing it and try to find out what those reasons are and make an effort to try and turn it in the other direction.”

Transfers and walk-on coaching turnover have caused Long Beach football numbers to drop exponentially in the last decade. Two years ago, Long Beach Poly had to shut down its junior varsity team because there weren’t enough players. No one will be surprised if other Moore League teams abandon their JV games due to lack of depth. One local coach said he’s made a habit of calling his preseason opponents every week to make sure they’ll have enough players for the game.

Those falling numbers just don’t impact the ability to play the games but potentially the safety of those playing it. Fewer players on rosters forces more players to play both offense and defense during games, increasing their chances for injuries.

“When you’re down in numbers and you have several players playing both offense and defense and maybe most of your special teams that’s going to take a physical toll,” Wigod said. “Just the number of hits that you take. The number of times you’re running up and down the field over the course of a 10 game season. Depth makes it safer for any student involved, I don’t think there’s any question.

Safety concerns plus time commitments and shifting cultural priorities have been the most influential variables in declining football participation, but some coaches believe the sport has changed for the better.

“Right now, in my opinion, this is the safest time to play football,” St. Anthony High School’s Mario Morales said. “The awareness is heightened, and the technology is incredible today, like the helmets… It’s a safer game and I don’t think a lot of the parents— you could say moms— but the parents don’t really understand all of the safety measures today.”

St. Anthony High School has less than 25 freshman football players this year. Photo by JJ Fiddler.

The CIF-Southern Section has limited football practice time on the field, as well as the amount of contact allowed per week for each team.

“Over the last 20 years or so there have been tremendous numbers of measures taken, rules that have changed and things that have been done to try and make the game safer,” Wigod said. “Things like concussion awareness and protocols, heat illness and hydration information, helmet-to-helmet contact, blocking below the waist. All of these things have been done to try and make the game safer and I’m not sure that message is getting out as much as it could.”

Many Long Beach coaches agree that the stigma around football is causing families to choose the other many activities available to high school students now. They also agree there are many ways to get more players on the field.

“It’s important as a staff to make those community ties with the local lower levels like Pop Warner,” Long Beach Poly coach Stephen Barbee said. “A connection with the community will at least allow the numbers to stay the same. We’ve done a few free football camps for the community youth. This was our second year and we had about 90 kids come out. The community needs to understand that when they send their child to your program that they’re going to be taken care of. They’ll not only be shown the game of football but how to act as an adult and deal with adverse situations in a team setting.”

Barbee, Morales and Lakewood coach Scott Meyer all say they encourage multi-sport athletes in their program, but that the demands of each team weigh heavily on a student-athlete.

“I think the time commitment can be really tough, and I think it’s the worst in the summer,” Meyer said. “Some of the kids will practice in the morning with basketball, and then we ask them to come to football in the afternoon to lift weights and practice. Then they go off a couple nights a week and play in summer league basketball games. I’ve seen some kids that by the end of the summer, a time when they should be recharging their body and mind, they’re recovering from the summer. That’s not right.”

“I’ve heard of some programs going five days a week in the summer, and then they also have weekend commitments,” Barbee said. “At Long Beach Poly, we don’t need to work longer, we need to work smarter. We have players in summer school, or they have jobs and stuff like that. We make sure our practices are driven and we’re practicing with purpose. We want the kids to have three day weekends in the summer so they can take that girl on a date, hang out at the beach with friends or go to the park and just kind of be kids.”

Wigod believes the coaches play a huge role in the kind of environment they foster in their football programs.

“Everyone loves to suit up on Friday night, but that nine months between seasons is a long time,” Wigod said. “If students are constantly having to put more and more into that nine months, it may take away from those wanting to stay with it.”

Wigod added that if the trends don’t change, and high school football continues to decline in participation, the CIF-SS may have to look into combining schools or districts to make one full team.

“We do some work with other states that are combining teams,” Wigod said. “I’m not saying that’s necessarily going to happen next year or the year after, but I can tell you it might be a way to continue to allow schools to participate. You have to think a little bit outside the box, so to speak, and allow different kinds of formats. Instead of two schools dropping a sport, they can both have students interested in playing it, but under a different format than we’re used to.”

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.