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Is Youth Football Contributing to the College Gender Gap?

More boys than ever are playing youth football, and more girls than ever are attending college. Are the two somehow interrelated?

That's the question that ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook led his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column with a few weeks ago.

Here are the facts:

• More than 1.1 million high school boys participated in organized football during the 2010-11 school year, according to the most recent data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

• More females than ever are attending college, with 9.9 million-plus undergraduates enrolling in the fall of 2009, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Does that mean the two are causally correlated? Not necessarily.

Easterbrook quickly (and rightly) notes that "the main force must be that girls as a group are doing very well in high school, making them attractive candidates for college."

It's not as though the college gender gap is a new phenomenon. Female undergraduate enrollment surpassed male undergraduate enrollment in 1978, according to NCES data, and males haven't been able to catch up since.

But Easterbrook points out that females, by and large, don't participate in organized football at the high school level (barring a few exceptions), whereas males do.

He surmises:

"Having ever-more boys being bashed on the head in football, while more play full-pads tackle at young ages, may be causing brain trauma that makes boys as a group somewhat less likely to succeed as students. In the highly competitive race for college admissions, even a small overall medical disadvantage for boys could matter. More important, the increasing amount of time high school boys devote to football may be preventing them from having the GPA and extracurriculars that will earn them regular admission to college when recruiters don't come calling."
Not Just Brain Damage

A study published in the online journal Pediatrics in October gives Easterbrook's claims merit. It found children who suffered moderate or severe traumatic brain injuries (including concussions) suffered substantial side effects that reduced their quality of life, even 24 months after their injuries.

But Easterbrook wasn't just concerned about possible brain damage to youth-football players.

He rightfully cited the concern of youth-football players spending too much time on their sport and not enough time on academics, too.

With year-round football becoming more popular at the prep level, Easterbrook worries:

"The boy who wants to be on the team may have trouble with grades throughout his high school years, while giving up on anything but sports. College-admission officers consider extracurriculars quite important. Many boys who spend most of their time and energy during high school on year-round football, then do not get recruited, send to colleges applications listing a low GPA and no extracurriculars. They're up against girls listing a higher GPA and extracurriculars. Who do you think will be admitted?"

Again, this isn't to suggest that youth football is the one and only reason that more females have been matriculating to college than males over the past two decades. At most, youth football would be one of many contributing factors.

Still, if youth football is playing any role in making males less likely to go to college, Easterbrook believes it would be a "troubling indictment of the sport."

He's not the only one to be asking these types of questions lately.

Carol Lloyd, executive editor of the Great Schools Blog, recently asked in a post, "Are we putting brawn above brain" in high school football?

Given what we've learned about concussions in football these past few years, especially with young brains, these are entirely valid questions.

So, check back here later this week early next week for five suggestions for changes to youth football that could better protect youth athletes.

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