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Is Concussion Research Impacting High School Football Participation?

I'll warn you right off the bat: I don't definitively know the answer to the question posed in the title of this post.

But as ESPN's Tim Keown wrote in a commentary Wednesday, anecdotal evidence has begun suggesting that high school football participation rates have been plummeting in recent years, at least in California.

Keown writes:

There are more schools struggling to round up more than 20 players. There are more and more comically lopsided scores—50-0, 60-0—making the dreaded second-half running clock a more frequent occurrence. The difference in participation, skill level and coaching ability between the schools with rich football traditions and those without them is growing exponentially.

In his commentary, Keown cites data from the California Interscholastic Federation that found statewide high school football participation to have fallen 4 percent over the past half-decade, from 107,916 male student-athletes in 2007 to 103,088 boys this past school year.

It's not just in California, either. Nationwide, High school boys' participation in all sports dropped for the first time in 20 years during the 2011-12 school year, according to the latest participation survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

Men's basketball and football experienced the largest drops, with 13,603 and 12,239 fewer athletes, respectively, but seven of the 10 most popular boys' sports all experienced a drop in participation this past school year, according to the NFHS data.

Keep in mind that such fluctuations aren't exactly unprecedented. About 3,000 fewer boys participated in high school football in the 2009-10 school year compared to the 2008-09 school year. There were also slight drop-offs in high school boys' football participation rates between the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years, as well as between 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Somewhat surprisingly, boys' participation in high school football hit an all-time high back in the 1976-77 school year with a total of 1,113,016 student-athletes, according to the NFHS archives. High school football participation plunged in the 1980s and early 1990s, sinking below 900,000 in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 season, before coming back up to the 1 million mark by the 1999-00 school year.

So, can we conclusively say that the mounds of emerging concussion research from recent years have dealt high school football a death blow from which it will never recover? Not exactly, based on the data alone.

Realistically, we'll have to wait at least another few years before having the sort of national data that can definitively lead us to such a conclusion.

But the more stories we read like Keown's, or like this Philadelphia Inquirer story from early September about a school cancelling its football season due to player safety concerns, the more we're left to wonder: What's next for high school football?

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