Published: Sept. 27, 2017 By
High school boys huddle during football game

The number of high school boys playing American football grew steadily from 1998 to 2009 but then began a “notable decline” that is likely to continue amid controversies surrounding the National Football League (NFL), according to an analysis published Monday by professor Roger Pielke, director of the Sports Governance Center at CU Boulder.

“From 1990 to 2009 it was a steady increase. Football was getting more and more participants and was the king of sports,” he says. “But in recent years we have seen things shift into reverse, with each year seeing a subsequent decline.”

The analysis, commissioned by the international sports governance consortium Play The Game and published on its website, is one in a series Pielke is conducting to explore the cultural, political and scientific issues surrounding the “future of football.” It looked at data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations and U.S. Census data of boys age 14 to 17.

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In terms of raw numbers, it found participation in high school football peaked in the 2008–09 academic year at 1.14 million. In 2016–17, it had slumped slightly to 1.09 million.

The percentage of age-eligible high school boys playing football also declined, from 13.2 percent in 2012–13 to 12.7 percent in 2016–17

About 25,000 fewer high school boys played football this season than last season, Pielke says.

In his paper, Pielke points to numerous states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, which have seen double-digit drops in high school football participation in recent years.

Pielke acknowledges the national declines documented in his analysis are small and the overall football pipeline remains healthy.

“The relatively small decline in youth participation is not by itself going to strike fear in the hearts of college or pro football teams or their sponsors,” he writes. “However, if current trends continue, or accelerate, this may be a cause for concern.”

He attributes the decline primarily to parental concern about concussion risk and points out it pre-dates recent controversies surrounding NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who opted to “take a knee” and not stand for the national anthem, and President Donald Trump’s remarks over the weekend that those who did the same should be fired.

However, Pielke suspects such issues can only do more damage to participation in the sport in the future.

“Sports has historically avoided partisan politics. It has been unique in that way, and that has brought people together. If you turn the NFL into a referendum on Donald Trump or Colin Kaepernick, some fraction of the American public may vote with their feet and stop letting their kids play. It just adds to what is already a swirling set of issues around football.”