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“Professionalization” of Student Athletics Taking a Toll… and Video Gaming Might Contribute

September 1, 2019

Earlier this week LA Times writer Eric Sonderheimer reported that across the nation for the first time ever participation in high school sports has declined. Football, it seems, is taking the biggest hit (no pun intended). He writes:

High school sports received a double dose of bad news on Monday when the annual participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations showed a decline in sports participation for the first time in 30 years for the 2018-19 season.

Leading the decline was another drop in football participation, with 11-man football dropping by 30,829 to 1,006,013, the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. It’s the fifth consecutive year of declining football participation.

Overall sports participation was 7,937,491, a decline of 43,395 from 2017-18.

“We know from recent surveys that the number of kids involved in youth sports has been declining, and a decline in the number of public school students has been predicted for a number of years, so we knew our ‘streak’ might end someday,” said Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director, in a statement. “The data from this year’s survey serves as a reminder that we have to work even harder in the coming years to involve more students in these vital programs – not only athletics but performing arts programs as well.”

As a football fan and grandparent, I can see why parents are reluctant to send their child out to the gridiron. Injuries are frequent in practices and in games and the wide publicity of CTE is compounds the problem.

As a retired high school principal and school superintendent, the other reason for the decline cited in the article resonated:

Ed Croson, the veteran football coach at West Hills Chaminade, said the “privatization of youth sports and people wanting parents to spend money year round on club teams”is impacting high school football.

Coaches want kids all the time,” he said. “One of the problems is you send them to other sports and they don’t come back.”

When sports are privatized, children who cannot afford the fees or whose parents cannot keep up with the weekend travel schedules are sidelined and effectively miss out on the opportunity to participate on an even playing field.  Compounding the problem for football is a factor that Mr. Croson didn’t acknowledge: unlike soccer and basketball— whose seasons never end (due to Lightening soccer and AAU basketball), football is a single season sport. Additionally, football, unlike most sports, requires lots of expensive equipment.

Mr. Croson DID offer one additional insight which resonated with this grandfather:

“With the rise of social media and all the contraptions kids have – cellphones, the internet – kids are sedentary,” he said. “When we were young, our parents threw us out of the house to play. The world was more physical.

To the best of my knowledge pick-up baseball, playground basketball, football and soccer do not exist at the same level as they did when I was younger. While there were little league teams in baseball, we spent more time playing “orkies up” on the playground than practicing in our matching t-shirts that passed for “uniforms” on our little league team… and while I played intramural, church league, and YMCA league basketball I spent more hours outdoors playing basketball on a concrete playground with a 9-foot 11-inch basket than I did on a hardwood floor with a regulation height basket.

If we want to lure kids back to sports, we need to have more parents throwing children out of the house to play and less time spent on screens. I know that is rowing against the tide, but so is eating a vegan diet and supporting higher taxes.

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