Across the country, the number of schoolchildren playing football is declining. Youth football leagues are adapting.
VIENNA, Virginia. On the night of September 26, the Miami Dolphins faced the Cincinnati Bengals in a highly anticipated AFC game. That’s when the play happened.
The 300-pound defenseman slammed Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the ground. The choice of the first round lay on the ground for about 15 minutes with fingers bent back.
Across the country, parents and their children watched and wondered if football was right for them.
“We both watched the game,” said Brandon Baird, Loudoun County parent. “It was definitely a turning point. It was sad and depressing.”
Byrd spoke to us on the field in Ashburn, Virginia, where his son Gavin played on the football team. Gavin is a member of the Loudoun County NFL Flag Football League Dolphins. Recently, he has expressed interest in wearing pads.
“I feel like I will probably do it soon,” he said.
His father said they would probably let Gavin play, although they are trying to keep him in flag football for as long as possible.
“It’s hard as a parent,” he said. “You don’t want your child to get hurt. And so today it is a big problem. But I also want him to have opportunities and do what he loves because he’s very passionate about it.”
Flag football is becoming more and more popular among many parents. In the Loudoun County Flag Football League, enrollment has skyrocketed from around 300 a few years ago to over 800 this season.
Cathy Granja, another parent, also watched her son play flag. She said she would absolutely let her son play tackle.
“I’d rather have him play sports than sit at home on Youtube or play video games,” she said.
What are numbers?
The National Federation of State High School Associations publishes an annual survey tracking how many student-athletes are participating in each sport.
In the latest poll for the 2021-2022 season in football with 11 players, 973,792 people took part. This is a significant drop from a decade earlier. In the 2011-2012 season there were 1,095,993 members.
This reduction of more than 122,000 students represents a reduction of approximately 11%.
The number of high school footballers at the local level has also declined, albeit to varying degrees.
- In Loudoun County, the number of children playing high school football has dropped slightly. In the 2021-2022 season 1447 students enrolled compared to 1491 students in the 2012-2013 season. This is just a reduction of about 3%.
- The District of Columbia reportedly had 537 athletes enrolled in high school football clubs in the 2022–2023 season. Five years ago, in the 2017-2018 season, there were 638 of them. This is a reduction of almost 16%.
- Montgomery County had 1,867 high school football players in the 2022–23 season. Ten years ago, in the 2012/13 season, there were 2,142 players on the roster. This is a reduction of almost 13% over the last decade.
- Fairfax County had 3,075 high school football players, which was actually the highest total since the 2017–2018 season. However, this is almost 5% less than in the 2011-2012 season, when there were 3222 players. In the 2008/09 season, there were 3423 players. Since then, attendance has fallen by more than 10%.
- Despite numerous requests, Prince George County was unable to provide this data.
Where are the athletes going?
While some families make the decision to forego table football, others choose another sport altogether. The Junior Champion Tennis Center (JTCC) in College Park is full of entrants.
“That was never an option,” said Milena Galova.
Galova said she put an end to any plans to play football, despite her son Nikola pleading with her over the years.
“I asked my mother so many times when I was little to play football…” Nicola said. “She said it was too dangerous and that she would never let me play even if it was flag football.”
“He never understood why,” Milena said. “And later we told him that in a sense, flag football is the first step. If he likes it too much or if he’s too good, he’ll ask to play.”
That sentiment is shared by many at JTCC, which has seen a surge in enrollment thanks in part to the success of local star Francis Tiafoe.
Michael Talley, also a parent, said he is a big football fan, as is his son. He allowed his son Sam to play flag football but didn’t let him wear shin guards.
“Head injuries, that’s all…” he said.
Talley pointed out the loud “shortcomings” of NFL concussion protocols and asked how young people could be kept safe if professionals weren’t protected.
“Why should I give them my child – the most precious thing for me,” he said. “And let them protect him. This is not true”.
Across the country, youth leagues are changing their training approaches to keep kids safe and encourage more families to sign up.
Todd Casey, commissioner of the Vienna Youth Football League, said the last decade has brought many changes. In the early 2010s, there were about 500 kids in the league. He said that number was cut in half shortly after the release of the 2015 film Concussion, starring Will Smith.
“When the concussion movie came out,” he said. “It really made youth football look inward and learn how to teach the game better.”
Casey said there is now more training on proper ball handling technique that better protects the head. They also began to limit the number of percussive drills in practice.
“What we have really done is learn not to be distracted from the game,” he said. “The way we teach football, compared to when I was growing up, day and night is different.”
Casey said the changes helped make the game safer, and he said enrollments are now starting to rise again. More than 300 athletes played in the league last season.
“We are really seeing a resurgence,” he said. “Parents from Vienna want their children to play football. And Fairfax County parents want their kids to play football.”