Football exists in an odd spot in the American conscience currently. It’s still one of, if not the, most popular sports the country has to offer, with countless people setting aside their fall and winter Sundays for a several hour ritual in front of the television, and even a growing popularity abroad.
But increasingly, we are learning that human bodies bashing into each other at such high speeds actually isn’t good for the people participating. Some players make it to retirement and seem relatively fine, but others are so physically hobbled or mentally debilitated by the sport that it ends virtually any chance at “life after football.” With that wave of realization has come an increase, at least in perception, in parental concern over their children playing the sport, which is part of the reason of waning participation numbers.
Locally, the figures appear far more dire than nationally. While participation had started to recover nationwide slightly after dipping in the mid-2010s, numbers from the Ithaca Youth Bureau show that youth football participation has fallen precipitously. In 2017, IYB’s Small Fry Senior Tackle program, designed for kids between 10 and 12 years old, had 41 players enrolled; In the two years since, it has shrunk to 20 in 2018, and just 15 this year, putting it in danger of being eliminated.
Just four years ago the program boasted around 65 participants-- so many, in fact, that IYB split the program into two teams so there were enough opportunities for each kid to play. Yet last year, the Small Fry Junior Tackle program, meant for kids under 10, was folded by IYB because there weren’t enough players.
Meanwhile, interest in the NFL Flag program has actually ticked upwards. The co-ed program was actually started as a reaction to the Junior Tackle team shutting down and has thrived since. In 2018, when the program began, 39 kids signed up, which moved up to 48 this year, serving boys and girls under age 10.
The different directions of both programs points to one fairly clear conclusion: while interest in football still remains, there are a variety of different factors that are having a negative impact on tackle football participation. Alternative football options, like flag football for example, are still attractive options for kids, but interest in traditional tackle football is being outweighed by fears that appear justified over the sport’s long-term impact on physical and mental health, added to the normal reasons kids leave certain sports, like lack of time or simply preferring something else.
“We’re getting bombarded with concussion PR stuff in the NFL,” said Ernesto “Tito” Villa, the rec program coordinator in charge of sports at Ithaca Youth Bureau. “But also, we have so many options here in Ithaca. There’s theater, art, lacrosse. A lot of programs are getting specialized and doing year-round stuff.”
The trend is troublesome for those who love traditional football. Villa even said the conversations have gone as far as IYB considering “phasing out” tackle football entirely, although the bureau is still gathering information before making a final decision on that front.
Villa said the flag football has given them some foothold in rebuilding their youth participation numbers, but it comes only after IYB eliminated its junior tackle football team, which provided a tackle football option for kids under 10, in favor of the NFL Flag program. Not only does the NFL Flag program avoid contact, it’s also designed for both boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 10. The senior tackle football program, for ages 10-12, still exists.
“One of the new things we did this year was talk closely with Ithaca High School and their head coaches of varsity,” Villa said. “Just kind of collaborating with them. We’re getting ideas from them about what they think can help them in the youth program about what can get numbers up. [...] Somewhere in that age gap we lost a ton of people, so we’re trying to rebuild that and flag seems to be working.”
With so many questions surrounding the sport, it’s fair to ask if it is appropriate for the youth bureau to continue offering it, regardless of interest level. Villa understands that question, but said there are so many benefits that, at least for the time being, it still holds certain advantages he doesn’t see to the same extent in other sports.
“It’s one of the few sports I have where you have kids with different socio-economic backgrounds,” Villa said, also noting the physical fitness benefits. “White, black, Spanish, Asian. Kids from all over, not just in the town but in the outskirts. It’s a very disciplined sport, you have to pay attention so I think it translates to school. [...] I wouldn’t be putting kids out there in football if our coaches weren’t trained specifically to be safe.”
There’s also action at the state level which could impact youth football in the area. Villa said New York State is considering a law that would penalize groups putting helmets on kids under 14 years old, which would obviously lead to the termination of IYB’s involvement in tackle football.
Since the trend began, Villa said other sports seem to be siphoning off some kids from football, when in years past the opposite would have likely been the case. Basketball, lacrosse (especially girls lacrosse) and hockey, in particular, represent the largest threats to football participation in terms of other sports programs. There are two primary factors Villa sees playing into that: first, the naturally changing interests of kids as they grow; second, parents who are worried about their children because of the physical nature of the game and the emerging research on concussions, even in youth levels.
The dearth of youth tackle players could signal a larger struggle in the future. Ithaca City School District Director of Athletics and Wellness Samantha Little mentioned that the weakening of local youth football programs will have a domino effect, and already has.
“The reality of that is, then the kids aren’t prepared,” Little said. “If we don’t have a senior tackle team, which is like fourth through sixth grade, then that diminishes the programming since that’s our feeder.”
In certain ways, the impacts are being seen at the school district level as well. Ithaca High School had to eliminate its junior varsity team this year, usually offered for underclassmen at that level, because of a lack of players. Trumansburg, Newfield and Lansing high schools have all had to switch from normal, 11-player football models to 8-player leagues, which can better accommodate smaller teams. Four other schools in Section IV of New York State are playing in the 8-man leagues.
Area parent Matt Hollister, of Lansing, said both of his sons are involved in youth football; his older son, who is 12 years old, plays tackle football, while his younger son, who is 8 years old, plays flag football since Hollister thought he was too small for tackle. Hollister said he isn’t very worried about his sons’ safety when playing football; he trusts the football coaches to teach them correctly and, like Villa and Little both said, believes that the personal rewards they reap from playing outweigh the dangers.
“I’m concerned, but I’m not overly concerned,” Hollister said, further noting that other sports, like soccer in particular, have their own dangers that aren’t as widely covered in media. “The benefits of team sports are vital to children, and everyone I guess. I think it teaches teamwork and sacrifice and working towards goals.”
Hollister said next year, when his younger son grows more, he’ll have the opportunity to play tackle football as well. Even as the boys age, the other players become larger and the contact becomes more significant, Hollister said he wouldn’t stop his kids from playing if they were still interested in doing so.
“I would never pull my kids out of a sport,” he said. “If kids are taught the right way, it’s much safer than it used to be. Equipment is better, the techniques are better, the game is much safer now than it used to be.”
Hollister’s certainly right that soccer’s head injury potential is under-recognized but certainly present. Recent studies have shown that soccer and hockey both have similar head injury incidence rates to football. Growing specialization, or choosing just one sport to focus on all the time, among youth athletes hasn’t helped matters either, Little said.
“There are so many different offerings for sports, and kids are specializing at an earlier age by choosing one sport and playing that year-round,” Little said. “I think that’s really hurting scholastic athletics in general. And that’s a detriment to the student athlete in many respects.”
In her mind, Little said that kids would become more well-rounded by playing more than one sport. Plus, she added, it might avoid wear and tear on the same muscles used for each sport, which could in turn reduce injuries that might be otherwise preventable. Often, specialization is justified by parents who say they want to give their kids the best chance to succeed by focusing on one specific sport, and is increasingly common at a younger age. This is despite research that has shown that early-age specialization likely doesn’t have an appreciable impact on future outcome, while it can contribute to physical injury, psychological stress and burnout if done too early, according to a 2013 Loyola University sports medicine study.
Whatever the primary source or reason for the decline, plenty of local officials and parents are going to keep an interested eye trained on the next few years of football participation. If the numbers drop much lower, at least at the youth bureau, there’s certainly the chance that tackle football could be replaced fully by flag football. ICSD’s sports are changing as well, as Little said they intend to introduce unified bowling this year; the mission stays the same, regardless of the sporting options provided.
“While the competition is important, and being a student athlete and winning is important,” Little said. “That’s not the goal, in my mind, of high school athletics. It’s about empowering these young people and allowing them to be the best versions of themselves they can be and be prepared.”