Jeff Chi, like many high school football coaches throughout the country, wishes his team’s numbers were up as he’s aware of a growing national trend in the sport’s decline.
According to a survey administered by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) – as reported in the Los Angeles Times – prep football is experiencing a significant drop in participation.
Eleven-man football has declined by 30,829, to 1,006,013, indicated in the Times report, the lowest level since the 1999-2000 school year. It marks the fifth straight year of dropping U.S. numbers and, based on the survey, the lowest level since the 1999-2000 school year.
Further, participation in all sports during 2018-19 was down, indicated in the survey, for the first time in 30 years. It shows 43,395 fewer sports participants during the 2017-18 school year when 7,937,491 nationally took to high school fields and courts.
Football participation in California has declined for the fourth straight year, the figure coming from CIF, which includes South Pasadena High as one of its members.
Concussion concerns is a major factor in the drop off for football, said Chi, but the Tigers’ varsity football coach says his coaches and players are doing a lot these days to prevent injuries, not only to the head, but other parts of the body. Along with being in better overall condition as a result of long hours in the weight room and on the field before the start of the season, all South Pasadena High players have gone through Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) training, which shows the effects of neurodegenerative disease.
CTE is caused by repeated head injuries, followed by symptoms that may include behavioral, mood and thinking problems. The disease often gets worse over time and can result in dementia.
“A concussion can happen anywhere,” said Chi. “It’s just a matter of how you recognize or how you diagnose it right away and allow the necessary time to heal so you’re good to go. When you play through it is when you put yourself through a lot more of a risk.”
He likes the steps CIF has taken to help improve the safety of players by limiting number of hours involving physical contact in practice sessions.
“We’re hitting bags and sleds more and more, not each other,” explained the coach. “I think that has been a huge help for us. We teach the players to lead with their shoulder pads, not with their helmets. If you do everything the right way, you’ll be a lot safer. Just follow the rules. Don’t be reckless.”
When asked how often and his coaches address the safety aspect of the sport with players, Chi quickly replied, “All the time. Numbers like we have, we can’t afford to have kids injured.”
The Tigers field a squad of about 28 players, but in their season opener at least four members of the squad sat out a 53-13 rout over Mountain View with a variety of injuries.
“We do everything we can to keep them healthy so they can play throughout the year,” stressed the coach.
Chi said there are no fundraising efforts to pay for new helmets, perhaps, with the highest safety standards now in the National Football League. He claims the helmets worn by his players are safe enough.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s the helmet because I think the helmet here or anywhere else is safe,” he said. “You’re supposed to use it the right way. When you use it the incorrect way, that’s when you get hurt. As far as our helmets, we’re fine. Our equipment, we’re fine. It’s about playing the game the right way to prevent injuries. That’s what we emphasize and that’s what they’ve got to do.”
A professional trainer attends South Pasadena High practices and games, standing on the sidelines should a player seek attention. “He’s always telling us (coaches) how to deal with kids who have minor injuries, getting them healthy right away with the right amount of time, not too soon where they are going to re-injure themselves,” Chi said of the trainer’s role. “It’s a very positive thing for our team.”
The Tigers’ coach has heard all the numbers and concerns about football and why some are walking away, but stressed, “There’s danger in any sport,” he insisted, explaining that soccer and volleyball players take shots to the head with balls. “No matter where you are there’s a possibility (of getting hit in the head with a ball). “Do it the right way, you’ll be safe. It’s like driving on the road. You’re more prone to accidents if you don’t follow the rules. Our kids have done a great job of following our guidance in doing it the right way.”
Chi is proud to note that through long hours of practice on the field and in games none of his players have suffered a concussion this year.
Helmet to helmet, given a 15-yard penalty and possible ejection, is what officials at all levels – high school, college and the pros – are paying strict attention to as way to minimize concussions.
“It causes your head to have that traumatic shock,” said Chi after a player takes a blow to the head. “We keep telling the kids, ‘You don’t want to be doing that. You can get hurt. Nobody wins in that situation. There’s a proper way of tackling and blocking and we tell the kids you’ll last longer and be happier when you do.”
It’s a game, insisted the coach, talking about the sport of football, and, “We don’t want to see cheap shots,” he said. “We just want to play the game as fair as possible. It’s a pretty safe sport because you have all this gear to protect you, and if you use it the right way, you’re not going to get hurt. When you play soccer without headgear you have concussions. When you go for a head butt and, not knowing who is around you, you can get a concussion from going head to head.”
In a statement to the Times, NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff wrote: “While we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury, we continue to work with our member state associations, the nation’s high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible. Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it has ever been.”
Concerns about CTE is only one aspect of the declining numbers in football and other sports. With high demands placed on students to get into college, Chi believes students are faced with an influx of classroom challenges.
“Kids have to take AP and honors courses, they get involved in dozens of activities, and when it comes down to it, sports takes most of the time out of a day for these students,” Chi said. “They would rather invest their time in the school because it’s going to benefit their career and future. To be honest, they’re kids. They should be enjoying the high school experience, get involved in everything they can possibly do. There’s so much emphasis in grades, kids are just stressed out and don’t want to miss out (in achieving the highest grade they can).
Ed Croson, a football coach at West Hills Chaminade, told the Times “privatization of youth sports and people wanting parents to spend money year round on club teams” has made an impact on football’s lower numbers at the high school level.
And there are other factors. “With the rise of social media and all the contraptions kids have – cellphones, the internet – kids are sedentary,” he said in the Times’ story. “When we were young, our parents threw us out of the house to play. The world was more physical.”
The Times reports that more than 12,000 students in CIF have recently left football. “When we look at our football numbers, we want to break that trend and see them go back up,” said Ron Nocetti, the CIF executive director told the paper. “I would be more concerned if our overall participation levels were going down by the same amount. Our student-athletes aren’t leaving sports. They’re choosing other sports.”
The drop off in participation has the attention of CIF officials.
“We need to find ways to keep students involved in the game because it provides so many benefits,” said Nocetti to the Times.