Is football dying?

Well, the country’s most popular sport has been healthier with participation waning.

The long-term future of the game is in question nationally as participation numbers have dropped in recent years with parents holding their children out of youth tackle football because of concerns over concussion risk and studies that conclude that youngsters shouldn’t play tackle football.

A growing percentage of parents across the country now support banning youth tackle football. A recent study by the University of Washington School of Medicine showed that 61 percent of parents supported bans on youth tackle football. An additional 24 percent showed that they might support age restrictions.

Rim Country Middle School football coach David Blalock said the 20 players this season on each of the seventh- and eighth-grade teams he helps coach is the fewest he’s seen in 10 years of coaching at the school. However, he believes that has more to do with smaller class sizes than a trend. He’s optimistic that the numbers will grow in the next couple of years.

“It goes up and down,” Blalock said of roster sizes. “It depends on the class size. We’ve had as many as 32 or 35. One of our coaches also coaches fifth- and sixth-grade youth football, so he knows what’s coming up. He says he thinks there will be more next year because there are more kids playing (on that team).”

The Roundup reached out to Payson Youth Football officials for their input, but did not get a response before this story went to print.

Payson High School varsity football head coach Bryan Burke wants parents to know that the game has changed for the better.

“It’s a safer game now than it has ever been,” Burke said.

Burke starred as a defensive end on Payson’s 2008 undefeated state championship team before playing at Scottsdale Community College and South Dakota State University. Now the Longhorns’ coach wants parents concerned about the safety of the sport to look at both sides of the issue.

“I just ask parents to make an educated decision and not (look at just) one perspective,” Burke said.

Some have argued an increased number of diagnosed concussions doesn’t mean the game is more dangerous than it used to be, but that the spotlight shining on the issue has resulted in a greater focus on player safety. Years ago, many concussions went undiagnosed and players often kept playing. That’s no longer the case.

Burke said more emphasis on concussion awareness is good. Over the last few years, football organizations have implemented a series of tests or a concussion protocol that a student-athlete must pass to return to action if it’s suspected they may have suffered a concussion. Student-athletes also receive concussion awareness training.

“We had probably six (athletes) last year that sat out for the concussion protocol,” Burke said. “Now concussion protocol and having a diagnosed concussion are two different things. I can think of one kid we had last year that sat out a week or two weeks for a concussion.

“Since I’ve been here, I may be able to think of three or four kids we had sitting out of practice for concussions. And a lot of times that’s for things like a kid falling down and hitting his head on the grass like you’d do in the backyard, not necessarily from contact.

“There are signs early in the season you look for. A kid says, ‘I have a headache.’ Well, there are a lot of reasons you might have a headache. So, there are signs and we take every sign serious and we play it safe.”

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder with symptoms such as memory loss, rage, mood swings and suicidal thoughts, while performing autopsies on former NFL players. Repeated head injuries can lead to CTE. Younger people are more at risk.

But Burke said it’s a different game today.

He points to rule changes with an eye on player safety, an emphasis on coaching better tackling techniques and better helmets as reasons for improved safety.

“The game’s definitely played differently than it was 20 years ago,” Burke said. “The leading with the head has kind of been eliminated.

“Back in the 1980s and ’90s it was a more physical game. The technology they had, along with the techniques taught then, led to a lot of serious head injuries.”

Some former players hardly recognize the game anymore because tackles that used to be cheered a few decades ago have been banned and routinely result in disqualification.

“A lot of guys who played in the ’80s and ’90s say they hate watching football today because it’s not physical enough,” Burke said.

A Payson varsity player was ejected from each of the Longhorns’ first two games this season for “targeting” or leading with their helmet on a tackle. It’s not always clear whether a player led with his helmet or shoulder pads. And high school officials don’t have the benefit of the slow-motion instant replays that NFL and college officials utilize.

Today’s helmets provide more safety than they did in Burke’s playing days.

“The technology improvements since even when I played 10 years ago is incredible,” he said.

Legislators in the United States have passed no laws banning children from tackle football. And there is no law limiting at what age kids can play tackle football.

Canada this year banned full-squad tackle football for children under the age of 13 starting in 2022. However, children haven’t been banned from playing tackle football anywhere in the U.S.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,036 million boys at 14,079 high schools took part in 11-player football. It’s the most popular sport with 400,000 more participants than the next most popular sport, outdoor track.

Despite a declining enrollment, Payson’s football participation numbers haven’t taken a big hit. In fact, more students (71) came out this year than last year (65), according to Payson High athletic director Rich Ormand. Burke said they typically have between 60-70 students playing football.

He said some have quit, which is usual, leaving him with 62 players to split among varsity and junior varsity teams. Attrition during the season is normal. By the end of last season, the number of players dropped to about 52, Burke said.

“We have a few more this year than last year,” he said. “I came across a program from 2008 and we had 72 or 73. So it hasn’t gone down much. But we’ve had years when we’ve had like 50.”

Burke heard a sobering statistic at a meeting for coaches across the state in July.

“The participation numbers in youth football in the Pacific Region are down the last several years I believe 24 percent,” he said. “The numbers in flag football have come up. So the belief is a lot of parents with younger kids are holding them out.”

Burke thinks the game will bounce back with numbers increasing across the country.

“I think the darker days are behind us, participation wise,” Burke said. “It got rough for a while.”

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