After reaching a record high in 2010, participation in Pop Warner, America’s largest youth football organization, dropped by 9.5 percent over the next two years, ESPN’s Mark Fanairu-Wada and Steve Fanairu reported Wednesday. Enrollment in Pop Warner, which reached nearly 250,000 members in 2010, dropped to just over 225,000 a year ago, according to numbers that hadn’t been previously disclosed.
In total, youth football participation has dropped by 6.7 percent, from 3 million to 2.8 million, according to USA Football, which oversees youth football across the country. The National Sporting Goods Federation says that number may even larger: it found earlier this year that football participation has dropped 11 percent since 2011.
Is the increased national attention on concussions and head injuries in football to blame? There’s evidence supporting that belief — a recent national survey found that a third of parents are less likely to allow their children to play the sport for that very reason — and youth football officials think it’s the leading cause of the decline:
Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline, including the trend of youngsters focusing on one sport. But the organization’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as “the No. 1 cause.”
It’s still too early, I think, to call this an eventual death knell for the sport of football. The same survey that found parents more hesitant also showed that nearly three-fourths of parents would allow their children to play the sport, and youth and high school participation rates are dropping, college and professional football existed for a long time on numbers that are far smaller than they are today. But if this is a trend, and it seems likely that it is, it poses obvious questions about the game’s future and, in the NFL’s case, its ability to grow its business as it has been for decades. Youth football obviously supplies a steady stream of players to higher levels, but it also provides the NFL and college football with new generations of fans.
While it’s easy to focus on what this means for the NFL and football as a whole, though, the larger question is whether parents should let their children play the game. That’s a complicated question, one only muddied, as Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby highlighted, by debates over when kids should be allowed to play tackle football, efforts to improve on-field safety, and the existential question that clouds the game: can it be safer, or are brain injuries and concussions a simple by-product of playing? And if the latter is true, that only leads back to the original query about whether children should partake at all. A recent study found that young players are more likely to suffer concussions than their older counterparts, but it also noted that knowledge of the true effects of concussions (and football) on young athletes is hampered now by a severe lack of research. Thus, we don’t have a definitive answer to those fundamental questions yet.
But that knowledge may be coming with more research, and when we have actual answers, parents will be able to make even more informed decisions about whether their kids can play. This already shows that parents are more aware of the dangers, so while it still may be years away, it’s at that point that this could turn into an even larger trend and we’ll truly know whether football — and the NFL — can possibly exist even remotely like the sport that thrives today.