A disturbing refrain is being echoed by coaches throughout high-school football two-a-days of late: Our numbers are down.
Always fearful of injuries decimating team depth, coaches can never have enough players on the roster. But their concerns this summer have more merit. Studies in Ohio and nationwide confirm that participation numbers — trickling all the way to the youth level — are on a steady decline.
Reasons for this trend are many: The time commitment and physical rigors are increasingly demanding. Students have more sports and academic activities to keep them busy. More athletes specialize in one sport with hopes of earning a scholarship. Participation fees can be an obstacle. Growing concerns about injuries, most notably concussions, deter some.
Others blame a general softening of our culture for boys opting not to play.
Since his first season at Mifflin in 2010, coach Gregg Miller said his roster has dwindled from 80 to just below 40.
“The kids are telling me they don’t want to spend their summer in the heat practicing,” said Miller, who plans to retire after this, his 23rd season. “They’d rather sit in the air conditioning and watch TV and play video games. They say they’re willing to come out when the season starts, but you and I know that isn’t going to fly.
“It’s just a different society we’re in now.”
Westerville South 24th-year coach Rocky Pentello said the turnout in his Division I program has dropped from 90 roughly 10 years ago to below 50. Westerville Central’s opening in 2003 was just one factor.
“It’s a societal and generational thing,” he said. “The kids we’re getting are just different now. Kids are isolated; they’re not outside playing in the parks and fields like we did. I hate to say it, but a lot of them would rather sit home and play NCAA or Madden (video games). Football takes a lot of work, and a lot of kids today just aren’t willing to make that commitment.”
Ready coach Brian Cross echoed the sentiments of his colleagues.
“High-school football is a year-round sport, and not a lot of people in this day and age are willing to make that kind of commitment in preparation,” he said.
Statistics provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Ohio High School Athletic Association reinforce the coaches’ claims.
Although participation in high-school sports nationwide increased for the 24th consecutive year, football held steady in the 1.1 million range, about 40,000 players fewer than five years ago.
Between 2008 and 2013, the number of players in Ohio dropped from 55,392 to 45,573. Perhaps even more telling: 22 fewer schools fielded teams in 2013 than in 2010. OHSAA spokesman Tim Stried said, however, that he expects a slight uptick this fall with the addition of eight new teams, including Worthington Christian.
“A slow decline in numbers recently is due to the combination of a few reasons, including the elimination of some freshman teams due to budget cuts, the trend of sport specialization by kids, and also higher pay-to-participate fees that cause some kids to drop the sports in which they are not a varsity contributor,” Stried said. “Football numbers remain very strong in Ohio.”
In Michigan, football participation has dropped 10.5 percent since 2007. The state’s 41,507 participants last year was the lowest number since 1995.
USA Football reported that youth and high-school tackle football participation has dropped from 3.2 million to 2.6 million since 2007, an 8 percent dip. And Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw its numbers drop 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012 — its largest dip ever.
Olentangy Liberty coach Steve Hale, president of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, said the numbers problem affects certain pockets. His Division I program has 128 players, 84 in grades 10-12.
“We’ve had some up-and-down swings at Liberty,” he said. “Generally speaking, I think specialization is hurting everybody. You can play so many sports year-round and use private trainers and the whole bit. I’m not sure it’s a matter of the kids not doing anything. My inclination is to think they’re focusing more on other things. They’re spread so thin to begin with.”
A handful of City League teams are said to be practicing with fewer than 30 players.
“We’ve got 38, but only about 28 to 30 that show up consistently,” South coach Keith Dimmy said. “It changes the way we run practices, that’s for sure. We can’t have as many contact drills as we’d like for fear of guys getting injured. I want to make sure we keep the people we have healthy for the first week of the season. That’s my top priority right now.”
DeSales, a Division III team, has about 60 players, which coach Ryan Wiggins calls “manageable,” but he noticed that many Columbus diocese youth teams are joining forces because of lower numbers.
One year removed from a 10-1 playoff season, Centerburg has just 27 players, 10 of whom are freshmen. The junior-varsity team was scrapped.
Coach Jim Stoyle said a number of factors resulted in the significant decrease in players, but he is trying to be proactive in curtailing the problem. He has held various clinics, with the idea of educating parents about football.
“Our sport has been under attack unjustly because of its supposed violence and the concussion issues,” he said. “I think it’s important to get accurate information out there about safety and equipment and all the things we’re doing to try to prevent injuries.
“High-school football still is an institution and a way of life for many people and communities across America. We have to fight to keep it that way.”
This article was republished with permission. The original article was published in The Columbus Dispatch.