High school football players are back on the field today across Michigan. But if a recent trend continues there will be less of them out there sweating through the first day of practice than there have been in nearly 20 years.
Participation has been on a downward trend for what has traditionally been one of the most popular scholastic sports, and there could be significant long-term ramifications.
From 2007 to 2012, high school football participation in Michigan fell 10.5 percent. The total of 41,507 players in 2012 was the lowest the sport has had since 1995.
“Coaches constantly look at that and see what they can do to keep numbers,” Mason coach Jerry Vanhavel said. “You see more and more programs that don’t have a freshman or a JV team.”
Part of the downward trend is tied to enrollment. Over the past two years, high school enrollment in Michigan has decreased 1.1 percent. But that enrollment drop hasn’t affected other sports as it has football — in fact lacrosse and cross country experienced record participation for boys and girls in 2012.
But football faces some big obstacles in attracting athletes including injury risk — especially with the increasing concerns about concussions, athletes specializing in other sports, and its time commitment.
All appear to have a direct influence on participation numbers.
And if the trend continues, there will be fewer schools offering football.
“There are teams that have had to shut down their varsity program because they didn’t have the numbers to sustain it,” said Scott Farley, the coach at Jackson High School after many years as head coach at Leslie.
A 2012 study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 47.1 percent of concussions in high school sports come from football.
Statistics like that have scared off some parents and players from participating.
“I have some friends of mine who say they don’t want kids doing it because it’s too dangerous,” said Scott Lonier, the president of Grand Ledge Area Youth Football, who added that the organization’s participation numbers are down about 15 percent.
Even though the speed of the game and size of players are marginal compared to the NFL, high school athletes can be more susceptible to concussions in football.
“The brain is not as developed yet, so therefore, they are a little bit more vulnerable,” said Jeffrey Kovan, Michigan State University’s team physician.
Kovan adds that fears are greater at the youth level, and there might be another drop in participation in five to 10 years when those kids reach high school.
Yet while football players do face an increased risk, the frequency of concussions remains low. The same study by the AJSM found that for every 10,000 times an athlete participates in a competition or practice, 2.5 result in concussions.
Precautionary measures are being taken throughout the sport — especially in the high schools.
Every helmet the Haslett varsity football team is using was brand new last year or this year.
Okemos coach Jack Wallace says he has less full contact practices than ever before.
East Lansing is one of many high schools that have started using imPACT testing, a computer-based exam that can help diagnosis concussions.
And coaches are trained to teach and stress proper techniques in tackling and intitating contact. The NFL‘s Heads Up Football campaign works to educate coaches and players at all levels to help reduce helmet contact.
Former Detroit Lion and Sexton graduate Damian Gregory is part of the program, and he believes it will make the sport safer going forward.
“The game is safe, but it’s how the game has been taught (by some in the past) that has been the problem,” Gregory said.
With just a few weeks until football practice, Lansing Catholic’s Austin Krause had to make a decision — play football or focus on baseball year round?
Krause chose the latter.
“A lot of people who have it in their mind that they want to play one particular sport in college are really starting to narrow down their season to do one or the other,” Krause said.
More and more athletes are following the trend of sports specialization. Some athletes focusing on one sport the entire year not only improves his or her chances of a scholarship but also can get more attention from colleges.
The result has been fewer multi-sport athletes at the high school level and earlier.
Troubling for many football coaches is that there appears to be little correlation between sports specialization and athletes reaching the Division I level. A 2013 study by UCLA that surveyed 296 male and female Division I athletes found that 88 percent played more than one sport in high school.
“We think well-rounded is much better,” said MHSAA media and content coordinator Geoff Kimmerly. “When we talk to college coaches, they like seeing well-rounded.”
Regardless, the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
“Specialization has gotten more and more prevalent, and it flies in the face of what we’ve experienced,” Haslett coach Charlie Otlewski said.
While football has just nine regular-season games, it requires huge amounts of practice time.
“Football is such a tough sport to commit to because it’s hard and it’s a long season,” Potterville coach Mike Selzer said. “Football is a week’s buildup to a two-hour event.”
The fringe players that might be destined for a backup role or special teams are the ones that coaches see coming out less and less.
“Society says you have to be the best and the star,” VanHavel said. “A lot of the times they think if they’re not that, they don’t want to do the work.”
Regardless of the cause, players are finding reasons to not play. “Everybody has their own reason for not wanting to participate,” Everett coach Marcelle Carruthers said. “A lot of it comes down to accountability.”
With participation numbers continuing to plummet last year, Webberville athletic director Andrew Smith made a difficult choice — to cancel the football season.
From the moment he made the decision, Smith put the focus on getting the sport back to his school. His solution was to switch to eight-player football, which is increasingly becoming an option for schools in Michigan with low participation numbers.
“The eight-man football option is the best thing that’s happened since I’ve been involved in high school sports,” Smith said. “It gives the kids the opportunity to compete.”
Smith says that less players on the field opens the game up more, and that’s actually leading to an increase in interest.
This fall will be the fourth season with eight-player football available in Michigan, with 29 teams now participating across the state, including Webberville and Portland St. Patrick.