Commentary

High school football participation

An anecdotal look at changing perceptions in California preps

Updated: September 12, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

A couple of weeks ago, at a high school football game near where I live, a team showed up and played with just 13 players in uniform. Predictably, the game ended 53-0, and it was a struggle for the winning team to keep from scoring 100. At one point, a kid running a punt back for a touchdown intentionally fell at the 20 because enough was enough.

On the same night, at Galt High School near Sacramento, the school's administration decided to forfeit a game rather than play with 14 healthy bodies. This was a big enough story to make the 11 o'clock news; Galt High has been playing football for 89 years, many of them with distinction, and this was the first time it had been forced to forfeit.

[+] EnlargeBart Houston
AP PhotoDe La Salle QB Bart Houston hands off the ball in December.

You want to see the impact of our increased awareness of football's dangers? Look down, not up. Most of the high-minded discussions of safety in football center on the college and professional levels, where athletes are bigger and faster and the consequences of throwing your skull around for years are far more lasting and serious. But the biggest change in perception is taking place at the high school level. This is primarily anecdotal evidence, but, through three weeks of the season in California, there are some definite trends taking shape.

There are more schools struggling to round up more than 20 players. There are more and more comically lopsided scores -- 50-0, 60-0 -- making the dreaded second-half running clock a more frequent occurrence. The difference in participation, skill level and coaching ability between the schools with rich football traditions and those without them is growing exponentially. It's not a surprise that top-tier schools -- Northern California's De La Salle, to pick one -- feel compelled to play other top-tier schools from out of the area or out of state to get competition. There's a variety of demographic factors at work -- private vs. public, parental involvement, off-campus vs. on-campus coaches -- separating the haves from the have-nots.

I talked to the athletic director of a small private school in Oakland that has 20 players and no junior varsity team. It lost 62-0 in its first game -- to a bad team. Against a worse one the next week, it lost 62-26.

"It's really tough to see a future," he told me.

If you're an athlete at one of these schools, what's your motivation to play? Here's a typical game: You play the whole time -- which sounds good -- but you get beat up and worn out against the opponent's first-teamers, many of whom are playing only one way. And then, once the game gets out of hand and all you can think about is going home, you get to play the second half against a bunch of gung-ho second- and third-teamers who view knocking your tired body around as the highlight of their season.

And when you go back to school Monday, it's a tough sell to convince your non-football-playing buddies to take up the sport. Teenage boys don't like to be associated with anything uncool, and there might be nothing less cool than getting embarrassed and smacked around week after week on the football field.

Remember, there are two main factors at work when it comes to fielding a representative high school football team: a kid's willingness to put himself through the rigors of the sport and his parents' willingness to let him. Given the growing awareness of the sport's darker side, most prominently the long-term damage associated with concussions, some erosion in participation is to be expected.

And here's the problem for the future of football: Erosion can metastasize. One year of poor participation at a high school can roll into the next year, then the next. Pretty soon, one school cuts its program, and another, and then leagues have to consolidate and football becomes less of a cultural touchstone. This Armageddon scenario is exaggerated but not out of the question. According to the California Interscholastic Federation, participation in football has declined from 107,916 in 2007 to 103,088 this season, a drop of more than 4 percent.

As with any topic that generates mass hysteria, most people reside on the poles. One side wants to eliminate the sport altogether, and the other thinks concern over head injuries is another example of the wussification of the Western world.

But the truth is, there are enough terrible injuries, such as the one suffered Saturday by Tulane's Devon Walker, to keep the issue in the forefront. It's true that people get seriously injured in all manner of ways, but a football injury like Walker's -- coming in the middle of the greatest era of anxiety ever known to a sport -- garners greater attention. And for every tragic and senseless injury, there are countless troubling injuries at the high school level. For instance, I know a high school senior who suffered a concussion so severe that he already has missed more than three weeks of school, not just football.

Yet our grasp on the dangers remains vague. Dan Garza, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Stanford School of Medicine and the 49ers' medical director, is conducting concussion studies at Stanford with the use of a special mouthpiece that measures force and frequency. He says some of the truths we hold to be self-evident -- most notably, the idea that one concussion makes someone more susceptible to the next -- have yet to be proved scientifically.

"It's not clear whether one leads to another," Dr. Garza says. "We're asking questions: Is there a genotype? Is there some genetic code that makes us more susceptible to repeat concussions? There are other factors of susceptibility. Were they handled appropriately? Were they put back in too early?

"I was on a panel: 'Can Football Survive?' I don't want to eliminate the sport. I see the benefits of the sport. Culturally, it's important. If you look at how far we've come in concussion research in the last 10 years, and the next three or four are going to be huge."

A whole lot of time and brainpower has been expended on devising ways to make the game safer, and many of the solutions are smart and laudable. The best one is the new rule in college and high school that calls for a player to leave the game for at least a play if his helmet falls off. This serves two purposes: (1) it allows trainers to assess a player in the event he suffered a head injury, and; (2) presumably, it will force players to tighten their damned chin straps and sufficiently inflate their helmets to keep from losing playing time.

The reduction in hours an NFL team can conduct full-contact workouts seems to be having an immediate impact: Just about every quarterback started his first game 10 of 11, or 13 of 16, and you have to think the limitations on contact have led to coaches spending more time on passing drills.

And I'd propose we add a rule to the high school level: An 11-man team can't play a game without at least 18 players in uniform. The number is arbitrary and open for debate. I know a lot of teams might suit up 30 and play only 17 or 18. I know some of the most epic games were played by teams at a great numbers disadvantage.

Still, it's admirable but irresponsible -- given what we do know -- to put 13 or 14 players on a field to play an entire game against a roster of 35 or 40. And I know, a lot of high school football players never leave the field and manage to get through a game or a season or a career without a debilitating injury. I also know this: Of those 13 or 14, there are bound to be four or five who wouldn't sniff the field on a team with a larger roster, and they're the ones putting themselves in serious danger when they're forced to play an entire game. It's simply not worth it.

Coaches can't be expected to make clear-eyed, dispassionate decisions. Their solution to suiting up 14 against 40 is to make everyone watch "300" the night before the game. Administrators have to be adults, like the ones who canceled the game at Galt High School. The athletic director said that his first mission is to provide for the safety of the students and that, in his estimation, he would be reneging on that responsibility if he allowed such an undermanned team to play.

Unfortunately, similar decisions might become more commonplace. In a backhanded way, a series of safeguards might help the sport regain some of the traction it's in danger of losing. After all, it's not going to die from the top down. The roots will dry up first.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com