A Numbers Game

Pacific Grove High School’s varsity squad - bolstered by the addition of a few junior varsity players - prepares for the playoffs. With better equipment, Athletic Director Todd Buller says there has been just one concussion this year, yet participation continues to decline.

That Pacific Grove High School has different designs for their junior varsity and varsity football helmets may seem like an insignificant detail. But when coaches decided to move some players from the younger squad up to varsity with playoffs looming, PGHS Athletic Director Todd Buller worried they might have some extra work to do.

“I thought we’d be painting helmets,” he says. But when he peered into the equipment room, there were more than 20 helmets available – all brand new. “We used to have to borrow helmets from [Monterey Peninsula College],” Buller adds. “Now we have a bunch of great helmets sitting in a cabinet.”

So much gear goes unused because high school football participation levels have been dropping steadily. Across the country, the number of boys playing 11-person football fell by 30,829 students this year, according to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations – the fifth consecutive year NFSHA recorded a decline. At just over 1 million boys on rosters at the start of the 2019 season, it also marked the lowest total since the 1999-2000 school year.

The California Interscholastic Federation noted a drop of 3.16 percent in football participation from last year alone. Locally, Marina High School scrapped its JV program this year when only four freshmen with football experience signed up. Carmel High School could not field enough JV players for their season opener against rival Pacific Grove.

When Pacific Grove faced St. Francis in September, both teams were dealing with injuries. As a result, neither squad suited up more than 19 players fit for action.

“It used to be our goal to have 100 kids playing, 25 in each class,” Buller says. “Last year we had less than 50.”

And while the numbers were up slightly this season at Pacific Grove, Buller considers that a fluke. He says 45 players will graduate at the end of the school year, and he doubts incoming freshmen and first-time participants will make up for the loss.

The decline has become so acute that CIF officials sent a survey to schools seeking reasons. They are planning a summit in February to study the data and perhaps form a response.

“Is there something we can do?” asks Duane Morgan, commissioner of CIF’s Central Coast Section, which oversees Monterey County schools. “Once we find the root cause, we can help kids participate.”

“We have a bunch of great helmets sitting in a cabinet.”

Morgan cites several possible causes for sagging participation levels. The time commitment – especially for kids who see very little playing time – is enormous. Additionally, more high school athletes nationwide are committing to a single sport. A study by Dr. Michael G. Ciccotti, head of sports medicine at Philadelphia’s Rothman Institute and the director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Sports Medicine Fellowship, reported in a presentation at the 2017 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons that 45.2 percent of high school students now play just one sport, starting at an average age of 12-and-a-half.

But the study also pinpoints what Buller believes to be the real key to falling football participation rates. Dr. Ciccotti’s report noted a “statistically higher incidence of sport-related musculoskeletal injuries” among high school athletes as compared to college and professional athletes. That, along with the surge of information on the long-term damage caused by concussions, is considered a prime reason why fewer kids are involved in the sport.

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Ironically, the decline comes at a time when equipment manufacturers and those who govern the game are paying particular attention to safety. According to Karissa Niehoff, executive director of NFHSA, every state has now enacted rules limiting the amount of contact in practice. Pacific Grove uses mobile tackling dummies in drills. There are mandatory water breaks. New helmet designs are intended to reduce the risk of concussion and states have concussion protocols.

“I think football is safer today,” Morgan says. “The technology of tackling has changed. The way coaches coach has changed – for the better.”

Buller looks back at high school football in the 1970s and sees a dramatic difference. “It used to be barbaric – kids hitting each other from 10 yards apart, no water. It’s a lot safer, but people are still paying for the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

In California, overall participation in all sports increased over the 2017-18 school year, according to CIF data, with 814,004 student-athletes – an all-time high. And numerically, football continues to lead boys’ sports with 91,305 players on state high school rosters (along with 610 girls).

But the forfeited games, the schools unable to field JV squads and the shelves of unused helmets tell another story.

“The first day of school we recruited kids who were in other sports just so we had numbers,” Buller says, referring to Pacific Grove’s JV team. “We have the best equipment and we’re still losing kids.”

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