A friend of mine and I were talking over the holidays about independent school sports, in particular, football. He is a teacher and coach at a private school as well, and was expressing his concerns about football in small private schools. This conversation has lead to this post.
Having been involved in independent school football since 2000, I have seen a few trends that are effecting the numbers in smaller schools. These trends have lead to some tough conversations in schools about the ability to maintain a football program from year to year.
The first trend is the growing realization that more and more athletes are specializing in one sport younger and younger. Two sports that effect football, in particular, are basketball and hockey. The athletes of these two sports effect football greatly. A large number of these boys take the fall season to train and get ready for their upcoming winter sport. Many of them could help a small football program. But for whatever reason, they feel they may jeopardize their season. Some are concerned about injury, some that they haven’t played football in awhile, and others are just told by their parents that they are not allowed to play. The worst excuse that I have heard is their AAU coach, or club hockey coach, told them they could not play on their team if they played a fall sport for their high school!! This is the one that has effected many day schools throughout the northeast. Boarding schools are less effected because the athletes have to remain on the campus during the week. Day students have the ability to participate in teams outside of their school. With this type of specialization, and it is not just hockey and basketball, less boys are playing football in the fall. This is not the prime trend that has lead to lower numbers.
The second trend is concussions. More and more families are concerned about their sons suffering a concussion from playing football. This trend, in my opinion, is the major one that has lead to lower numbers in football. Parents are more reluctant to allow their son to try football at the high school level, especially if they have never played the sport growing up. The concerns are valid, but they do effect the overall numbers of participants in a football program. The headlines from the NFL, college, and even the President, who recently said that if he had a son he would be reluctant to allow him to play football, certainly play a role as well. Awareness of the side effects from concussions has grown over the past ten years. This awareness has lead to many families making more educated decisions about whether to allow their son play the sport of football.
These are the two leading trends that I see effecting numbers in smaller independent school football programs. There are a few more I am sure, budgets, location of school, etc…but the greatest impact have come from the couple reasons above. It will be interesting to see if these small schools can continue to field football teams of 25/30 players and remain competitive, and more importantly, provide a safe playing environment.
Football is a sport I grew up playing from the age of ten. I loved it all the way through high school and into my days of coaching. It is the ultimate team sport that can teach life lessons of teamwork, cooperation, self-discipline, and determination. All of these lessons will come in handy as these student-athletes move on in their life journey. Time will tell on this question.