Amid growing concerns about the longterm health risks of contact sports, high school football participation is decreasing nationwide, according to a survey published by the National Federation of State High School Associations earlier this month.
While the overall number of participants in high school sports increased for the 28th consecutive year in 2016-17, the survey reports 11-player football had nearly 26,000 fewer players turn out compared to a year earlier.
That is the steepest drop national high school football participation has had in the past five years. Participation numbers were more than 1.1 million in 2007, but have steadily decreased over the past decade.
The Olympian polled local coaches last week to see if this trend is reflected in Thurston County. Contrary to NFHS findings nationally, most coaches reported either stable or increasing numbers entering the 2017 season, which beings in two weeks.
So how have local schools retained participation as national numbers drop? The coaches’ short answer: a commitment to safety.
“I think, generally speaking, all of the schools here are really quick to embrace safety changes,” North Thurston High School coach William Garrow said.
Though it still remains the most popular sport for boys in high school nationally, declining participation in football has been linked to concerns about injury risks — specifically concussions. Earlier this summer, a study found 99 percent of deceased NFL players tested had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that can affect people exposed to repeated head trauma.
And 3 of 14 high school players tested in the study were diagnosed with the same disease.
Several people responded to a post The Olympian made on Facebook, asking whether they would allow their children to play football after recent concussion data was released.
One woman said she would allow her child to decide whether or not to play in high school, but not before. Others considered the risk too great to allow their kids play at all.
“My kids will never play football,” one woman wrote. “It's a non-negotiable.”
Some programs have seen drops in participation for this reason. Rainier High School coach Terry Shaw said he had 39 players on his roster two years ago, now he has 24.
“A lot of that was, we had seven kids who were not seniors that didn’t come back,” Shaw said. “All of them were afraid of injury.”
While other coaches acknowledged possible injury has been a reason some players have elected not to play, it has not significantly impacted participation numbers.
Thurston County Youth Football League president Scott Erickson wrote in an email to The Olympian that participation is down 6 percent this year, but younger age groups — second to fifth grades — are down only 2 percent. The league also has added a flag football program for kindergartners and first graders that has 165 participants.
Erickson has not heard from non-returning players that safety was the issue, he wrote. Moving away, picking one sport to specialize in, or cost have been more common reasons not to continue, he wrote.
A number of coaches agreed that safety measures local programs have implemented — beginning at the TCYFL level — have helped ease fears.
Extensive information about concussions and protocol if a player does suffer a head injury are available on the TCYFL website.
All TCYFL coaches are required to take the Heads Up Football certification course, which was piloted by three programs in Virginia in 2012. The Heads Up Football program — which teaches athletes how to tackle properly and fit equipment correctly, and raises concussion awareness — is used by more than 7,000 youth and high school programs.
“I think it’s being taught in our youth league so well, it’s doing a great job of coming up to the high schools,” Timberline High School coach Nick Mullen said.
Taking players’ heads out of tackling, instead opting for a rugby-style tackle, has helped, Mullen said. With such tackling, defenders use their shoulders to tackle, change target points on a ball carrier, and emphasize wrapping up around the legs.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association also requires coaches to complete concussion training, among other safety trainings, and that training must be renewed every three years.
Shaw said preventive measures and treatment plans continue to improve.
“When parents, and kids too, start to see the benefits of how we treat head injuries, and how we prevent them, I think we will start to see better (participation) numbers,” Shaw said.
Safety continues to be an important and often talked about topic among local teams. In May, the Seattle Seahawks and United HealthCare visited Tumwater High School, presenting the T-Birds with 25 new concussion-tested helmets.
“I think everyone is doing a really good job of keeping the head out of the game, and teaching that,” Tumwater High School coach Bill Beattie said.
Beattie said Tumwater’s participation numbers — which reached as many as 130 in the spring — are consistent with what they have been in past years, and three other coaches in the 2A Evergreen Conference also reported favorable numbers.
Black Hills High School coach Kirk Stevens said the 66 players that have turned out is an increase from last year. Jeremy Thibault, who took over at Centralia this season, reported an increase, with more than 100 players arriving for practice last week. W.F. West coach Bob Wollan said the 95 players he has is within the range he’s had the past 11 years.
“From what I’ve seen, a lot of the schools have good numbers out,” Beattie said.
Some coaches said that any fluctuations this season had other causes. Both North Thurston and Timberline reported numbers slightly lower than typical, but both Garrow and Mullen attributed the decrease to high school boundary changes.
In an effort to increase attendance at River Ridge — currently a smaller school that competes at the 2A level — North Thurston Public Schools voted to draw new boundaries in 2015, with the eventual goal to have all three Lacey high schools in the 3A classification.
Garrow and Mullen don’t think fear of injury affects participation numbers at North Thurston or Timberline.
“We’re very up front (about safety), we talk about it,” Garrow said. “We have athletic trainers, and we cover the safety pieces with all of our kids and all of our parents at our parent meeting.”
Steve Davis, a longtime Olympia High School assistant coach who took over as the program’s head coach when Beattie moved to Tumwater earlier this year, said the 104 players on the Olympia roster is about the same as last season.
Declines in Olympia’s program over the last decade started after middle school football stopped being offered, Davis said.
In the 22 years he spent with the Bears, Beattie said the only other significant reason for slimmer rosters was because more athletes are opting to specialize in one sport, instead of participating in multiple sports seasons.
Beattie said while there is still plenty to learn about how to prevent and treat head injuries, he thinks more education will lead to increased participation.
“I think through education and through getting the word out that football is not the dangerous place it’s (perceived to be), I think you’re going to, hopefully, start seeing the numbers go back up,” he said.
“Hopefully people trust us to do the right thing, and see the positive benefits of football for young men outweigh the risks,” Garrow said. “That’s why we’re in this. We’re trying to make better people.”