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Kids and Parents Turn Their Backs on High School Football

Sports specialization combined with fears of long-term brain injury may be keeping kids off the field this year.

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Football may still be the most popular sport in the United States, but high school coaches across the country are struggling to recruit new players. A recent study by the National Federation of State High School Associations found that the number of kids playing football at the high-school level has dropped by almost 7 percent since 2009, making 2017-18 the lowest season for participation since 2004.

As a result, dozens of high schools have either discontinued their football programs, eliminated JV squads, or switched from playing 11-on-11 football in favor of eight-on-eight. Even acclaimed football schools like Long Beach Poly in California, which has produced more NFL draft picks than any other high school in the nation, recently dropped its JV football program. In fact, 40 states saw a decline in football participation last year, including Texas, a state where high school football is often a defining component of local and statewide culture. While the overall number of kids playing youth football in Texas has increased by less than one percent, the number of high-school students who play has dropped two percent.  

There is no definitive reason why fewer kids are playing football, but many point to the increased risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that becoming increasingly common in athletes who regularly take blows to the head. New research has found that too many years playing football, especially from a young age, puts kids at a higher risk of developing CTE. At the same time, many parents are unfortunately holding on to the long-shot hopes that having their kids specialize in a specific sport year-round will increase the likelihood of them getting a college scholarship. Statistically, only about two percent of all high-school athletes across the country receive an NCAA scholarship to play collegiate sports.