Brannon Cahela, Staff Writer
During my senior year of high school, a friend and teammate of mine received a concussion while playing football. He “got his bell rung,” so to speak. He was a wide receiver, and I was an offensive lineman, so he was too far down the field for me to see, but I still remember the collective gasp of the crowd as his head hit the ground after he’d taken a hit.
After the whistle blew, everyone cheered as he walked off the field. Later, on the sidelines, as we were going over plays for the next drive, my teammate looked at me and asked, “Hey, it’s 42-14. How’d that happen? I thought we had only scored 21 points?”
I was alarmed. I asked him if he knew who were playing and where we were. He thought we were playing Gadsden City when, in fact, we were playing Lee Huntsville. I went to the trainer and told him something was terribly wrong, and a few minutes later my teammate was on his way to the hospital to be treated for a concussion.
That was more than five years ago. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), since then (2013), high school football participation has declined nationally by roughly 35,500 students. Many point to a rising concern for safety as the reason for a decline in participation. Many parents are fearful of the long-term brain damage that can be caused over multiple years playing football, particularly if enough hits are taken during a child’s early brain developing years.
While there is a decline among football participation at a national level, could this decline be apparent throughout small southern towns like mine? Football is a big deal in Alabama. On Saturdays, everyone is pulling for the Tide or the Tigers. During the work week, fathers volunteer their time to coach their kid’s peewee programs. On Friday nights, entire towns head to the local high school stadium to cheer on the home team. It doesn’t matter if their child is on the team or not. In small towns there isn’t much else to do. Football is ingrained into who we are as a culture.
Even though participation in football has declined steadily over the past few years, it would still take many years of consistently dwindling participants to dethrone football as the most played high school sport. There was a total of 1,059,399 students playing high school football in 2016-2017. The sport with the second highest number of participants—basketball—had a total of 600,136. That’s still nearly 450,000 students away from coming close to football. So, is there really anything to worry about as far as the future of football is concerned?
Coach Cliff Mitchell has been an assistant football coach at Albertville High School for almost 16 years. He’s seen a lot of things in his time as a coach, but he hasn’t seen any decline in football participation. Albertville’s roster has actually grown within the last few years.
“I don’t think kids’ interest in football has wavered at all,” said Mitchell. “I just think that parents have become a little overly concerned with safety over the years because of the everything in the news.” “Everything in the news” being concussions.
Due to social media, Coach Mitchell says that it’s much easier for coaches to be in contact with parents. The increased contact has led to more questions, the most common being if teams have the proper protocol in place to deal with a concussion.
“Of course we do,” said Mitchell. “Our athletic trainers are very well trained and experienced. If a kid gets a concussion, there is a series of tests that they have to pass before they can continue playing.”
To concerned parents Coach Mitchell says this, “Safety is our number one concern. We all love football, but we all love our kids more, and we want to make sure that they’re taken care of. We treat them like they were our own.”
While the parents of high school athletes are more aware of concussions, the largest concern lies around children under 12, with many organization questioning if kids that young should even be allowed to play the game. Illinois and Maryland have both proposed bills that would outlaw full-contact football for children under 12.
“I think it should be up to a parent. I don’t think any form of government should say what your kid can and can’t do,” said Mitchell. “I’m worried about the helicopter state of everyone hanging over us and trying to protect us. We don’t need to live in a bubble. Sometimes you get hurt, that’s part of life. Don’t take something away that more than half of the country enjoys.”
While no public official in the state of Alabama has called for any age limits on the sport, the Alabama High School Athletics Association (AHSAA) has enacted restrictions on how much contact can take place during the practice week. Players aren’t going full speed every day like they did when I played. But do these restrictions cause more harm than they prevent? If players aren’t used to tackling every day, are they going to be skittish in game situations, causing more injuries?
“I don’t think so,” said Mitchell. “Right now, it’s about as good as it can get. Right now, we have plenty of time to get in a good practice and enough tackling. If there were any more limitation, though, I think that could lead to more injuries.”
Restrictions on tackling have been implemented at all levels of football, from youth programs all the way up to the NFL. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that after contact during the practice week was limited, there was a significant reduction in concussion rates.
(A more recent study by UW-Madison shows that students with a history of concussions are more like to struggle academically.)
Many argue that the life lessons football teaches boys greatly outweigh the risks of playing the sport.
“The thing with sports in general, and, especially football,” said Mitchell, “is that it turns a lot of boys into men. They’re all going to have tough moments in life, and football really teaches kids how to make it through them. The sport helps them to grown as human beings. It’s a grind. It’s like going to work. I think that you find that boys who play sports, and especially football, are a little more successful as men.”
While football participation may be decreasing, at a national level, and even in Alabama. Football is still very much a part of small town southern culture. “I think we’re a little tougher down here,” said Mitchell. “It’s just what boys do in the south; they play football.”
*Brannon Cahela is a graduating senior majoring in digital journalism. This piece was written for COM 420 Advanced Reporting.*