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Should high schools end football programs? Are risks to players too great?

Family, friends, teammates and classmates gathered Saturday to mourn and remember Burke County High School player Rod Williams, who died Monday after collapsing during a practice two weeks earlier.

The 17-year-old offensive lineman for the Burke County Bears became the fifth U.S. high school football player to die during a game or practice this season. He was the first Georgia football death this year. The Burke County coroner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “His heart failed and his lungs failed.”

As the AJC reported :

Williams is the third high school player to die from football-related issues in the last two weeks. Kenny Bui, a senior at Evergreen High School in Washington died Monday following injuries sustained in a game Friday. Evan Murray, a quarterback for Warren Hills High School in New Jersey, died following an injury sustained in his team's game the previous day.

My neighbor, a freelance sportswriter, made a prediction a few years ago: High schools will stop fielding football teams due to the threat of brain injuries. The combination of parental fears and school liability would eventually bring down the goalposts. I told him I could never see that happening. Now, I'm not so sure.

While high school football remains king in Georgia --  about 34,000 Georgia students played last year --  the sport is losing status and players in some states.

More parents are telling their sons they cannot play high school football. Play soccer or lacrosse, run track, join the swim or tennis team, but no football.

Schools in New Jersey and Maine have recently scrapped their football teams. A suburb of St. Louis built its recent homecoming around a soccer game even though its football team won the state title in 2010.

As The New York Times reported:

The school board in Maplewood, a St. Louis suburb, disbanded the high school’s football team in June, even though it reached the state championship game five years ago. A decade ago, such a move would have seemed radical. But concerns are growing about football players’ safety, and soccer and other sports are gaining popularity. “Over all, it was, ‘Can we field a team that is competitive and safe for the kids to perform?’ ”said Nelson Mitten, the president of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School Board, who said players’ injuries last season included a broken ankle, a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a significant head injury.

In some cases, schools are canceling their seasons because they cannot find enough players to fill the roster.

As CBS reported:

The total number of high school students playing football across America has dropped by more than 25,000 over the past five years. "Youth participation is declining, high school participation is declining. This trend is going to continue," Time magazine senior writer Sean Gregory said.

"I'm not ready to call 'Friday Night Lights' off in the next 10 years, but I wouldn't be surprised if coaches are having kind of a more difficult time attracting quality players," Gregory said.

The Portland Press Herald in Maine  wrote this week about the falling rosters on football teams in the state, noting: Overall, high school football participation in Maine declined 14 percent from 2006 to 2014, according to data from the Maine Principals’ Association. That compares with an 8.3 percent decline in the state’s high school enrollment over the same period. Nationally, participation in high school football has declined by 2.4 percent over the past five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

A principal of a Maine high school that cancelled the rest of  its football season explained in a public statement: “Dwindling numbers of players have created a serious safety issue and we are simply not willing to put any more students at risk.”

The main risk to youth athletes is a concussion. Here are some facts from the Sports Concussion Institute :

•CDC estimates reveal that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur each year

•5-10% of athletes will experience a concussion in any given sport season

•Fewer than 10% of sport related concussions involve a Loss of Consciousness (e.g., blacking out, seeing stars, etc.)

•Football is the most common sport with concussion risk for males (75% chance for concussion)

•Soccer is the most common sport with concussion risk for females (50% chance for concussion)

78% of concussions occur during games (as opposed to practices)

•Some studies suggest that females are twice as likely to sustain a concussion as males

•Headache (85%) and Dizziness (70-80%) are most commonly reported symptoms immediately following concussions for injured athletes

•Estimated 47% of athletes do not report feeling any symptoms after a concussive blow

•A professional football player will receive an estimated 900 to 1500 blows to the head during a season

•Impact speed of a professional boxers punch: 20mph

•Impact speed of a football player tackling a stationary player: 25mph

Impact speed of a soccer ball being headed by a player: 70mph.


In a column in the New Jersey Star-Ledger this week, Robert Hoatson, a former high school principal, coach and athletic director, wrote about why schools should drop football:

Football has become too dangerous. Training programs are bulking kids up to an extreme degree, steroids and other growth enhancers are rampantly available and technology and other factors have speeded up the game to a frightening level. What once was a "contact" sport has become a "collision" sport, and we know what happens in collisions: one or both parties end up with serious damages, including permanent brain trauma.

If I were a parent today, there is no way I would allow my son to play youth football. I saw too much through the years, including sitting in hospital emergency rooms with parents awaiting news of the extent of their children's injuries. I comforted families whose sons suffered ruptured spleens similar to the one that recently took the life of Evan Murray of Warren Hills High School in New Jersey. We should not risk that type of tragedy for the sake of tradition.

What do you think? Will we ever see soccer anchoring homecoming weekends in Georgia rather than football? Should we?


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.