Concussions contributed to a slight decline in the number of high school football players in Nebraska this year, and it appears likely that concussion concerns will increasingly affect participation in coming years.
But some coaches and athletic directors believe there’s another reason for fewer football players: too many kids are couch potatoes.
“Kids aren’t active outside anymore,’’ said Andy Seamann, athletic director and coach of the eight-man team in Brady, Nebraska. “They play video games or sit on their cellphones. And this issue is getting worse the lower we go in our elementary and youth programs.”
The World-Herald reached out to the state’s 279 football teams after the Washington Post reported in August on a national decline in high school football participation, based in part on concussion concerns. The Post cited statistics that showed Nebraska had dropped eight high school football teams in the past five years.
And just this season, the 178 Nebraska football teams — 64 percent — that responded to an informal World-Herald survey reported 7,779 players, down 2.2 percent from 2016.
Through numerous scientific studies, news reports and even a 2015 Hollywood movie, long-term implications of repeated head trauma have become part of the national dialogue — and prompted introspection at every level of football from the NFL down to youth leagues. There’s talk that concussions, or at least the fear of concussions, have created a crisis for the sport.
But according to The World-Herald survey of Nebraska athletic directors and football coaches and analysis of various sport participation numbers, there’s more to the decline than concussion fears.
In some parts of the state, for example, football programs are affected by declining enrollment and school consolidation. Sometimes athletes drop football because they are specializing in other sports, like baseball, and training for them in the fall. Youths also may have medical issues other than concussions, or just feel the sport isn’t right for them. For a variety of reasons, high school boys are running cross-country instead of playing football.
In addition, there’s the couch potato factor — which affects more than football. Boys basketball, for instance, saw a 15.9 percent decline in participation between 2002-03 and 2016-17. Football’s drop in that time was 13.8 percent, from 14,544 to 12,543.
Michael Sorensen, athletic director at Grand Island Northwest, believes sports in general are not a priority for most kids, due to lack of parental support. “They feel there are more important things than sports,’’ he said.
It’s hard to pinpoint how much of the football decline is based on concussion fears. Relatively few youths quit high school football since last season specifically because they have suffered a concussion, according to the survey. Just 16 schools reported such a circumstance — though that doesn’t mean players and parents aren’t privately considering the issue in their decisions.
Anecdotally, some high school coaches have noticed a decline in middle school football participation because of concussion concerns.
Mike Sjuts, principal and athletic director at Bancroft-Rosalie, a consolidated school in the northeastern part of the state, said this about concussion concerns: “I think it is swaying parents from allowing their son to play. If they are on the fence, it seems to be an easy decision for them. They don’t play football.”
At least one school district — Omaha Nation — couldn’t complete its middle school schedule this fall.
“(It was) because of a couple of concussions,” said Brad Vogt, Omaha Nation athletic director. “Parents came in and said they were not letting their kid play after one concussion.”
Football remains a popular sport in Nebraska high schools, and no school reported plans to do away with it. When a school does find itself in a numbers crunch — for whatever reason — schools adjust in two ways: drop down in classification or combine players with a nearby school.
Four high schools could not field a varsity team in 2017, including Omaha small private schools Brownell Talbot and Omaha Christian Academy. Both are preparing to return to football in 2018 on a different level of competition or by combining players with a neighboring school.
That is what Bancroft-Rosalie has done. It now combines players with Lyons-Decatur Northeast. The 11-man team, BRLD, had 26 players this year compared with 33 a year ago.
It is this type of consolidated team that contributed to the reported drop of eight teams in Nebraska in the past five years.
These types of adjustments likely will become more commonplace in the state. At Valentine, for instance, only five of the school’s 30 freshman boys went out this year, Athletic Director Gus Brown said. But the school’s overall participation rate was 45 percent.
Tackle football participation has decreased on the youth level in the Omaha area in the past five years. According to statistics on club teams compiled by Kyle Crouch of the Metro Youth Football League, the 205 teams this year represent a 30 percent decline from the seven-year high of 293 in 2012 and a 10 percent drop from 227 last year.
“I believe mostly this is at the lower age groups where parents are waiting till later to let their kids play, making them play flag longer,’’ Crouch said. “Flag numbers are still huge around town.
“I think year-round sports is also taking its toll on football. (Youth) basketball has seen huge growth the past few years, and lacrosse is also on the rise.”
Todd Jakopovic of Great Plains Youth Football said recent expansion of the middle-school season from four to six games has taken away seventh- and eighth-graders from club football.
It is possible that concussion fears in football have driven more athletes to cross-country, which has made big strides in boys’ participation.
Last year’s 3,339 runners were 71 percent more than the 1,958 who were in the sport in the 2002 season.
Sandy Creek football coach Jeremy Borer said he has several former players who switched to cross-country because of concussion and other injury worries. Two players have had multiple concussions in their lifetimes and their parents wouldn’t allow them to play anymore.
Around Omaha, fall club baseball is a factor at some schools.
Tennis, besides cross-country, is the only other high school sport for boys offered in the fall. It’s grown by 100 since 2002.
Jim Pfeiffer of Friend provides perspective as a football coach and a parent of a football player. His son Logan, a senior, suffered a concussion as a freshman but stayed in the sport.
“I am concerned with the impacts football potentially has in terms of long-term health,’’ Pfeiffer said. “I do, however, believe that football is a sport that offers a lot in the way of instilling character, mental and physical toughness, and being part of something that is bigger than the individual.”
Roger Ortmeier, Elkhorn South’s athletic director, said concussions could dissuade a family starting their child in youth football.
“If an athlete starts playing, I think they continue if the interest is there,’’ Ortmeier said. “I think the education piece has eased quite a few minds of our parents.”
Red Cloud’s principal and football coach, Jason Heldt, said, “Our kids are better coached, protected and knowledgeable about concussions than they ever have been.”
Still, the heightened awareness can make it a harder sell.
“Mothers especially are much less likely to want their son to play football today than 10 years ago,” said Athletic Director Merlin Lahm of Columbus Scotus. “Some mothers seem to be winning this battle.”