High School Football Takes a Hit in Participation

NBC 7 Investigates reviewed the numbers of students signing up for high school sports for the past eleven years and found football is seeing a sharp decline in attendance.

High school football games on Friday nights continue to be an American tradition. But new numbers obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show fewer kids are signing up to play the game, not only across the state but also nationwide. 

“I sat up and I was seeing stars a little bit,” said Walker Southern, a former high school football player. “I just felt like something was off, this wasn’t just a normal hit.” 

After that brutal hit, Southern quit playing football for his high school and he’s not alone. 

Data obtained by NBC News shows football participation for high-schoolers dropped 7-percent nationwide since its peak in 2009. 

In California, the numbers are even more telling. NBC 7 Investigates analyzed data from the California Interscholastic Federation or C-I-F and found a nearly 13-percent decline in the number of boys and girls signing up to play high school football in the last eleven years. 

“Parents and children alike have become aware of the risks of head injuries and even sub-concussive injuries leading to brain damage,” said Doctor Suraj Achar, a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine for the University of California San Diego. 

Achar is also a father of three boys, none of which play organized football. He said a rise in awareness of brain injuries related to contact sports is a major reason for the decline in football participation. 

“The most dangerous [injury] is chronic traumatic encephalopathy but there's an assortment of other issues that arise learning issues behavioral issues balance issues mood issues,” Achar said. 

Earlier this year, a former high school football player received over $7-million from the Grossmont Union School District, after coaches failed to respond to the player’s concussion during a game. That player was only 14 when he was injured. 

Dr. Achar says the younger the child is when injured, the greater the risk. 

“It's partly because the neck isn't quite as strong,” Achar said. “The kids aren't quite as aware of their body position.”

California already has laws in place. Parents must sign a consent form, agreeing to the risks of concussions before their kids take the field. Time on the field when children can be exposed to contact sports is also regulated. 

Some say the decline in participation is not all about the fear of injury but also because kids have more high school sports to choose from. 

The data NBC 7 Investigates reviews shows this, with most other high school sports seeing an increase in participation over the last decade. 

For example, basketball participation for boys and girls has seen more than a 6-percent increase in the last five years. Water polo teams for all students has also seen a nearly 8-percent increase in the last five years.

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