Last week, ESPN reported that Pop Warner football participation dropped by around 10 percent from 2010 to 2012. The abrupt decline — which followed decades of non-stop growth and comes at a time when the NFL is as popular as it has ever been — suggests that evidence of football’s long-term harm on the brain has convinced many parents to pull their sons from the sport, at least at the youth level.
As we wrote on Thursday, the data may stand as a very early sign of football’s decline — its pool of extraordinary athletes shrinking the way boxing’s did a generation or two ago.
Just how much the pool shrinks is a worthy but unanswerable question. But it’s a good bet that the primary variables are the parents of those potential NFL stars. And, so far, the future looks grim for football.
Around 40 percent of Americans support a ban on kids playing tackle football before high school, according to a new survey by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute. Eleven percent were unsure.
Interestingly, parents with children who have played youth tackle football favored the ban at a slightly higher rate, 41.2 percent.
Support for banning tackle football before middle school was 47.6 percent. Around half of respondents “would encourage their own child or another child to wait until they reach high school before playing contact football.”
It seems inevitable that, over the coming generations, parents will increasingly sign their kids up for sports other than football. Considering that around 70 percent of NFL players played youth football, it’s conceivable that legions of possible Pro Bowlers instead fall in love with basketball or soccer or baseball or lacrosse.
High school football, though, is the gatekeeper to the fields where the money grows. Participation at this level is the true bellwether for the sport. And physicians have already begun recommending that parents keep their boys from strapping on the shoulder pads.
“I don’t believe it is worth the risk,” Dr. Pietro Tonino, a sports medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center, said in June. “So I advise parents to try to steer their children to alternative sports. We are just beginning to understand the long-term consequences of injuries sustained at young ages.”
So much depends on the coming research, of course. Our knowledge of football’s role in long-term brain damage remains in its infancy. There have been no comprehensive studies on whether Pop Warner or high school football increases a person’s chances of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But there have been enough studies on pro and, to a much lesser extent, college players to persuade many parents to play it safe.
A sport can fall off the map in a matter of a few generations. Boxing and baseball once battled for supremacy of the American sports landscape. Pro football, however, has advantages that prizefighting did not: it operates as a unified body, it lords over the most powerful taste-maker in the sports world, it generates $10 billion in revenue every year.
Still, 40 percent of the survey’s respondents anticipated that football “will likely follow boxing in declining popularity and support over the years ahead.”
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha