High school football is a Friday night tradition in Ohio. From inner-city Akron to the fields in Appalachia, fans are getting ready as grounds crews trim the grass and replace lights ahead of tonight’s games.
But on those fields, fewer players are suiting up.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association, the sanctioning body for high school sports in the state, says there’s been a consistent drop in the number of boys and girls signing up for football in recent years.
Figures from the OHSAA show a steady increase in the number of high school football players for most of the 2000s, and a consistent decline since. The OHSAA says the number of high school football players in Ohio last year was 42,490.
That’s down more than 23 percent, from a peak of 55,392 in 2009.
It's a trend reflected across the country: The National Federation of State High School Associations released a report in September showing that football participation fell from 1,112,251 to 1,086,748 players between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Meanwhile, overall sports participation increased nationally, including in several other boys' sports like soccer, track and field and cross country.
One big reason, says OHSAA spokesman Tim Stried, is the threat of concussions and other health risks associated with football.
“There is a heightened awareness," Stried says. "It started at the NFL level, obviously, and it has trickled down to the college and now the high school ranks. And I think families are now making the decision when, if at all, let their sons or in some cases daughters, play tackle football."
Bob Gardner, executive director of NFHS, denied in a statement any flight away from football.
“While we are concerned when any sport experiences a decline in participation, the numbers do not substantiate that schools are dropping the sport of football,” Gardner said.
The repeated head trauma associated with tackling has been questioned in many studies, chief among them a 2017 study of brains of deceased professional football players. Researchers found that 110 out of 111 brains of those who played in the NFL had the condition known as CTE.
CTE can only be diagnosed after death.
Stried maintains the game is safer now than ever and his organization has implemented safeguards, including federal regulations adopted by all OHSAA member schools that limit how much tackling and other contact players can be involved in during practice.
Another reason for the drop in players, Stried says, is more high school athletes are choosing a single sport and focusing on it year-round. With traveling teams shuffling baseball players around the state in the fall and basketball players in the summer, it can be hard for an athlete to find time for more than one activity.
The OHSAA also blames the shrinking number of high school football players on more kids holding after-school jobs, although Stried says that’s an anecdotal theory with no data to back it up. Overall, Ohio remains the fifth-biggest state by sports participation in the country, behind Texas, California, New York and Illinois.
Stried says his association still thinks kids who can play football should, and maintains the game is safe.
“It’s a violent sport. There are certainly dangers of injury and concussion, but we think football is safer now than it’s ever been,” Stried says. “We certainly think that the benefits outweigh the negatives.”