More than 5% of high school football athletes will suffer a concussion, according to studies in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and Neurosurgery. Youths and adolescents are more vulnerable. And yet: High school participation has barely waned.
In late 2013, ESPN's Outside the Line reported that Pop Warner, which includes players ages 6 to 14, had seen participation decrease 9.5% from 2010 to 2012. ESPN attributed the drop to the rise of coverage in concussions.
But high school participation hasn't dropped nearly as much. During the 2012–'13 school year, 1,115,208 teens played high school football. That's just 2% less players than in 2008–'09, when participation hit its peak, and just above the total for the 2005–'06 school year according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations analyzed by BuzzFeed.
In football-mad states such as Texas, Georgia, and Alabama, high school football participation has actually increased — it's up roughly 3% in each of those states since 2009. Washington, Utah, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Louisiana have all seen double-digit percentage gains. So even though 37 states have seen high school football participation decrease since 2009 — with the biggest hits coming in Arkansas (27%), Hawaii (24%), Vermont (23%), Ohio (17%) and Florida (14%) — participation hasn't budged much overall.
Meanwhile, legislators and state athletic associations are trying to make the sport safer. Nineteen states have restricted the amount of time high school football teams can spend on "full-contact" practice in-season and/or during the off-season — restrictions the NFL has had in place since 2012. A bill that limits tackling during football practice in California passed the state senate on last month and is now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. The University Interscholastic League, which governs high school football in Texas, implemented similar restrictions last year. Other states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Oregon, are also working on practice restrictions.
The idea behind these bills is that fewer "full-contact" practices will mean fewer opportunities for students to suffer concussions. But some coaches worry that the restrictions could place athletes in greater danger by leaving them unprepared for games. The California bill, which also aims to prevent concussed students from returning to action too quickly, is supported by American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Neurology, and the California Psychological Association.
If these restrictions don't curb concussions, schools and athletic organizations will face a difficult question: Do the often-intangible benefits of fielding a football team outweigh the risks?