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High school football: season over

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.
Dr. Steve Miles

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/07/2017 - 10:10 am.

    Good choice

    I absolutely agree, and on multiple points. Investments in football stadiums are a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, and it seems quite possible we’ll have a huge, charcoal-colored elephant in downtown Minneapolis in a generation. The risk of permanent, and too often life-threatening, injury is likewise very real, and it’s no wonder that thoughtful parents and students alike are abandoning the sport. High schools, public and private and parochial, ought not to sponsor or promote tackle football, nor should they switch their energy and support over to rugby or some other equally-risky athletic activity.

    I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of promoting physical activity and fitness through the promotion of activities of all kinds, non-contact sports included, that encourage and foster genuine physical fitness. Sports are, or at least can be, fun and enjoyable for both participants and spectators, but they’re not, in any cosmic sense, important. The lessons that coaches like to cite about teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etc., are all valuable, but they can all be taught and experienced in non-athletic environments just as readily, and sometimes more effectively.

    I should add that I was a high school head coach (of a mostly non-contact sport) for 15 years. I enjoyed it. My players worked hard and learned some worthwhile lessons, but it was neither a career nor something that made important contributions to the society beyond its entertainment value. Football, or any other sport, especially when played by children and adolescents, is not worth dying for.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/07/2017 - 12:09 pm.

      If You Haven’t Noticed

      ANY professional sports palace in MN is deemed obsolete within a generation of it construction.

      • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 12/07/2017 - 04:52 pm.

        Not Just in Minnesota

        Look at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Only 25 years old and was demolished this past weekend. The Metrodome was built on the cheap in the 70s and it showed it as soon as it opened. The Metrodome was a baseball field disgusing itself as a football stadium.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/07/2017 - 04:01 pm.

    NFL’s grip on its TV viewer base is slipping, too.

    I’ve also noticed, the few times I watch, that when the cameras pan the stadiums, there seems an awful lot of empty seats, sometimes so many that I’m surprised they don’t avoid panning altogether.

    Maybe the public awareness of the long term negative consequences of all those hits is dampening its enthusiasm for the sport. Yet the broadcasters still love to focus on the “big hits” – gets them excited, I guess, as the replay and replay injuries.

    • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 12/07/2017 - 04:57 pm.

      Many reasons for lack of fans in the stands

      Did any of those games that you “watch” feature teams with winning records? If the hometown team isn’t winning, that will cause less attendance. How many fans stay in their seats for the entire game? Where at in the games did you happen to notice the panning of empty seats? If late in the game and the outcome is clear, fans leave the stadiums early to avoid traffic. Just because TV ratings are down doesn’t necessarily mean less interest. How many people keep track of the games on their phones or other mobile devices as they’re out and about doing stuff? Gone are the days when football games on Sunday was the only thing to watch.

  3. Submitted by Ted Janusz on 12/08/2017 - 07:16 am.

    Excellent article! And three more resources on CTE …

    Dr. Miles,

    Thank you for doing the research for your in-depth article and for sharing your valuable insights. And for keeping the community informed.

    Here are three additional resources on the topic you might find interesting:

    What is it like to live with a former NFL player who has CTE? An interview with Cyndy Feasel, author of After the Cheering Stops

    What happens inside the helmet of a ten-year-old football player?

    What will we tell our kids (and grandkids) about football as it existed in 2017?

    Keep up your GREAT work!

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