Football participation down in Chicago suburbs

Through open records requests, the Chicago Daily Herald obtained counts of students participating in football at 87 high schools in the Chicago suburbs for every year between 2008 and 2017, analyzed the data, and concluded that fewer students are participating in the sport this fall compared to 2008.

The drop is quite dramatic—as high as 54 percent at some schools and averaging 18.7 percent over all. That’s a more significant decline for these 87 schools than the national average decline, but the number reflects a growing trend in US high schools. The paper notes several factors that may play a role, based on interviews:

  • Understanding of how contact sports cause concussions
  • Accessibility to a wider variety of fall sports and activities
  • A tendency of student-athletes to specialize in one sport

Any changes in the number of fall sports offered at the 87 high schools weren’t reported, so the second potential cause for the decline can’t be confirmed from this report. The other two potential causes, however, have been well documented in research, which has generally confirmed the conclusions based on the Daily Herald’s interviews of parents, doctors, students, coaches, and athletic directors.

“I’ve had more parents who weren’t super excited about it in the first place, and then the kid suffers a concussion and the parents will say, ‘Don’t worry, Doc, he’s not playing anymore,'” the paper quoted Dr Nathaniel Jones, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, as saying.

Mirrors a national trend

Participation isn’t just down in the Chicago suburbs. Nationwide, there were about 54,000 fewer players in 2016 than in 2008, when participation was at a 10-year high of 1.1 million players, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. (These numbers are, I suspect, a little lower than reality, since a few schools with football teams don’t participate in the NFHS survey of player participation.)


Boys’ participation in football is down everywhere, national data show (Source: NFHS)

Participation is down about 4.9 percent nationally since the high watermark in the fall 2008 season. That’s generally consistent with the smaller and concentrated sample size in suburban Chicago reported in the Daily Herald, where the biggest drop came in the five years ending last fall (2016-17 school year). The decline is even more dramatic if we consider the average number of student-athletes participating in football at each school whose numbers were reported up to the NFHS. (Data aren’t available for the current fall season nationally.)

Participation in football across all of Maryland’s high schools was 15,418 in 2008, when the Daily Herald first considered the suburban Chicago numbers. The drop from 2008 to the fall of 2016 in Maryland was about 13 percent, and participation in football in about 180 of Maryland’s public high schools dropped 8.1 percent over the most recent five years:

  • 2016-17: 13,418
  • 2015-16: 13,941
  • 2014-15: 14,293
  • 2013-14: 14,373
  • 2012-13: 14,606

“The elephant in the room right now is concussions,” The Daily News in Hanover, Massachusetts, quoted Nathan Bonneau, Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association spokesman, as saying. “Many parents are pointing their children to different sports because of safety concerns, such as concussions.”

Research is still new, and as such, hasn’t been independently confirmed in very many cases. But the body of research that has been published is strikingly consistent in its conclusions.

Our understanding has culminated in a Boston University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July, which found 110 out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players had degenerative brain disease. And our understanding of this issue continues to grow. Earlier this week, also from Boston University, researchers published a report in the open-access journal Translational Psychiatry showing a statistically significant decline in both executive function and metacognition in adults if they played tackle football before age 12.

These studies continue to give pause to any parent who thinks playing football would be in their child’s best interest.

Look, there’s risk in most sports, but the evidence now coming out of peer-reviewed research studies seems to put football in a league of its own. There’s not a special helmet any company can make to protect the brain from concussion. (Period.)

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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