Boys high school football is dying in Minnesota. National studies show that the primary reason is parental and student concerns over brain damage, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The risk is real. It is found in the autopsies of high school students who die from causes other than football. The risk of CTE increases with the duration of experience in football; in pro players the risk is highest in those who start young.
Football is different. It, as with rugby and mixed martial arts, is built around creating the risk of head trauma on every play. Football is important; it is by far the largest collision sport that schools support.
Yet participation in boys tackle football is decreasing much faster than other intramural sports. Since 2007, boys football has fallen 16 percent; boys athletics has fallen 7 percent. By contrast, the number of girl high school athletes has increased by 17 percent since 2007. In the fall of 2016, the last year for which data is available, 122,000 boys and 117,000 girls signed up for high school sports in Minnesota schools, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Some schools have closed tackle football programs
A few Minnesota high schools have closed their tackle football programs. More will do so as fewer students are willing to play, public understanding of CTE increases, and the legal risks to schools and coaches rise.
What does the data imply for the future of high school athletic programs in Minnesota? These numbers suggest that investing in high school football stadiums is unwise. Although much smaller than tackle football, high school soccer is slowly becoming more popular. Today, 17,000 boy and girls play on soccer teams.
The closing of football teams will lead to the consolidation of teams across multiple schools and will also change play-off structures. The high school data also suggest that Minnesota’s small liberal arts colleges with NCAA division III teams can expect to see the number of available athletes rapidly fall. This is medically prudent.
Emphasize lifelong activities
Minnesota should redirect high school physical education programming away from spectator sports to focus on general physical education activities that can be pursued throughout a healthy life. These include jogging, swimming, working out in gyms, bicycling and so on.
Given the medical risk to students’ brains, public high schools should neither sponsor nor promote tackle football.
Steven H. Miles, M.D., recently retired as a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics.
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