Are Friday night lights burning out?

By: 
Sonja Karp

T

here is a concerning and rather disconcerting new trend that appears to be developing in high school sports, particularly in football. That trend is an apparent loss of interest for young men (or women) to participate in the fan-favorite sport.

According to the National Federation of High School Sports, there are 43,000 fewer athletes participating in high school sports than last year, and 30,000 of those are opting not to play football.

Here’s the disconnect for me: the National Football League grosses $13 billion a year which is up $3.5 billion over Major League Baseball, and with a plurality of Americans citing football as their favorite sport, I believe it’s safe to say that it has eclipsed baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

We obviously have a fascination with the gridiron where we watch incredible feats of athleticism every Sunday, plan social gatherings around games, and play in fantasy leagues so we can feel the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat for ourselves.

So when I hear news of high school programs forfeiting their football seasons due to declining numbers, I’m baffled and, quite honestly, a bit concerned.

I did a quick search on the internet of schools who have forfeited their 2019 football season because they don’t have enough players, and found that 14 states from the east coast to the west have opted to play a junior varsity season only.

A vast majority of the schools that have canceled their season have done so because of a lack of numbers in the junior and senior classes. While interest seems to remain in the lower grades, a concern expressed by coaches and school administrators is that the risk of injury to the younger, smaller and less experienced players outweighs the disappointment of forfeiting the season.

Wyoming is among the states that are facing this issue as just last week, Midwest became the latest on the list of season forfeitures due to this problem.

Why is America’s favorite pastime suffering at the entry level? 

The number one reason that I found for the drop in football participation is parents’ fear of injury — most notably concussions. 

Another reason identified is the trend for athletes to specialize in one sport, despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests that multisport athletes are more successful overall.

In addition, there are more and more kids in high school who simply do not participate in extracurricular activities due to work schedules or other demands outside of school.

Finally, other hobbies are taking the place of high school sports for many young people. Those may include playing video games and/or social media outlets such as YouTube that occupy the extra time of today’s youth.

In fact, according to a recent article in the Minot Daily News, “e-sports, competitive electronic gaming, is poised to be introduced at the high school level” and that “several schools … have already petitioned the [North Dakota High School Activities Association] to sanction e-sports teams.”

Is this the direction of high school sports? Will fans be gathered around a monitor watching video-games being played by kids? I most definitely hope that is not the future.

The possible reasons for a lack of interest in football appear to be many, but one single fact that stands out is that when schools have to forfeit their season, the ones who pay the price are those upperclass students who stuck it out to play the game they love. 

Our Dogies are right with those other schools whose teams have very few upperclassmen, and I know that our juniors and senior (yes, only one) who play would probably be pretty broken hearted to have their season taken away. 

You only get four short years to play football as a competitive sport, so I feel really bad for the kids who live for it to be denied the opportunity to be able to play it.

I don’t know what the solution would be to try to build interest, but I do know that for small schools especially, if the trend continues, we may not see those Friday night lights glowing in the future. For players, parents and fans I hope that this eventuality doesn’t come to pass.

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