Before most players in the National Football League wore a pro jersey, they had to put on a college jersey. Before they wore college colors, they probably donned a high school jersey. Before that, many wore youth football jerseys.
That unbroken progression has existed for generations, but lifelong players are becoming more of an anomaly than the norm.
Participation in tackle football has declined dramatically over the past 10 years for many reasons, most predominantly player health. With high school participation dropping to its lowest point since 2000 according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, youth tackle football numbers are most concerning to those with a vested interest in the game.
For football to make a comeback and secure its spot at the top of the American sports food chain, experts say it has to adapt by making changes to safety, equipment, legislation and manner of play.
The problem that youth and high school tackle football face is the increased prevalence of head injuries and the multiple unknowns of impact on a youth brain, which will require further research, said Dr. Anikar Chhabra, director of sports medicine at Mayo Clinic Arizona.
“The long-term effects of head injuries and repetitive head injuries starting at a young age are a little bit more unknown than the adult who gets a head injury,” Chhabra said. “The unknown is what happens with repetitive head drama. We know there’s an effect, but we can’t really prove it.”
Muhammad Oliver, 50, spent five years in the NFL playing for five teams, and four years in the Arena Football League playing for the Arizona Rattlers. Oliver still believes football is the ultimate team game and teaches youth skills that translate off the field.
“When you’re in a work environment, you have co-workers that you depend on to get a project done. Well, it’s the same thing in football,” Oliver said. “Our defensive backs have to rely on our linebackers and defensive line. Our receivers rely on our quarterback and offensive line. Everybody relies on each other. And you realize how important it is that everybody does their job, including you in order for the team to be successful.”
Oliver’s son, Isaiah, is a cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, but Muhammad Oliver said he will not let his younger children play tackle football until they are at least 12 years old.
Oliver said his 5-year-old and 8-year-old ask him all the time if they can play tackle before they turn 12, to which he says, “Yeah, it’s not happening. Nope, not happening.”
He’s not alone.
In September, the NFSHSA witnessed its first decline in high school sports participation in 30 years. The number fell from about 7.98 million to about 7.94 million – a 43,395 difference – with football the biggest contributor to the decline.
According to the NFSHSA, participation in high school football dropped by nearly 31,000 participants to about 1.006 million, which is the lowest mark since the 1.002 million mark in the 1999-2000 school year.
In spite of the drop-in participants, the number of schools that carry traditional 11-man football teams rose. For context, the average number of boys on a high school football team was 79 a decade ago. Now, the average is about 70.
From 2006-2017, the number of people of all ages participating in tackle football dropped from 8.4 million to 5.22 million – a 37.8 percent decrease.
The decrease began around the time that head injuries, like concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), came to the forefront of neurological medicine, specifically relating to tackle football.
In 2005, pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu published a study about CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussive and subconcussive blows to the head. Omalu battled with football advocates and the National Football League over the validity of the study and CTE. His findings are now internationally recognized.
Omalu’s story became the 2015 movie “Concussion.” The most precipitous drops in football participation came in the years after the movie’s release.
“Now I see a lot of my friends (who played in the NFL) going through a lot of injuries and memory loss and all kinds of stuff like that,” Oliver said.
The increased awareness of head injuries had a significant impact on the game of football. It made parents such as Aneesha Sullivan fear for their children’s safety.
“I think my focus is head injuries because I know the consequences of head injuries,” Sullivan said. “Minor head injuries can have long-term consequences. So if they’re injuring themselves at a young age while they’re still developing, I think that that makes no sense at all.”
Dr. Javier Cardenas, director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center in Phoenix and a member of the NFL head, neck and spine committee, said what is known right now is that it takes adolescents over twice as long to heal from a concussion as it does for an adult.
The average time needed for an adolescent to heal from a concussion is three weeks as opposed to a fully grown and developed person, who takes anywhere from seven to 10 days, Cardenas said.
Parents such as Sullivan, who is a physician’s assistant in family medicine in Tolleson, find themselves in a quandary: let your child play football and assume a greater risk to head injuries, or keep them from a beloved American game.
Not all forms of football are going by the wayside, however. One of tackle football’s biggest competitors is another form of the game: flag football.
From 2014 to 2018, flag football participation at all levels rose by just over 16% – from 5.51 million participants to 6.57 million.