New Castle News Opinion

It’s sad — but not at all unexpected — to see high school football participation declining in the county.

The News learned that 291 players turned out this week for the start of preseason camp, a number well down from the 336 total of just four years ago.

For those who did come out, we salute your dedication to the sport and wish you a safe and successful season. For teams who find themselves a bit short-handed, well, we get that, too.

Two of the biggest reasons for lower participation are dwindling enrollments — state Department of Education figures show 600 fewer students in projected 2019-20 countywide enrollment than in 2014-15 — and a heightened awareness of concussion issues associated with the sport.

We certainly can’t blame any parents who steer their child away from the gridiron because of the latter, although there is evidence to suggest that the risk may not be as high as imagined.

An April study reported in the Journal of Pediatrics found a 5.1 percent concussion rate in 863 youth football players followed over two seasons. That was higher, the report said, than previously thought but much less than most parents’ perceptions. A May study involving 1,000 parents found that 83 percent believed concussion incidence to be more than 10 out of 100 high school tackle football players, and 25 percent estimated it was better than 50 out of 100.

Of course, in addition to concussions, football also presents the chance for other serious or debilitating injuries. So safety decisions are the right, and responsibility, of each parent to make when it comes to permitting their offspring to compete on the gridiron.

Other reasons cited for the decline of high school football — the National Federation of High School Associations has reported the number of 11-player football participants is down 6.5 percent from it 2009-10 peak — also must be considered.

One is a rising tide of early sports specialization, which sees youths commit to a single sport at a young age. Certainly, there are benefits to this. It encourages early development of peak performance and teams stocked with such specialists give themselves the best chance of success. Still, other studies show that early sports specialization can actually hurt development by limiting the range of motor skills developed and even lead to overuse injuries. It can also lead to burnout that prompts youngsters to quit sports altogether.

Video games? Traditionally, they’ve been an easy target for assigning blame to declining interest in both athletics and other social activities. Now, though, eight states actually recognize so-called “e-sports” as legitimate high school sports.

Finally, there’s the cost.

As safety concerns rise in football, so does the expense of equipment aimed at minimizing the risk of injury. Indeed, many schools now require students to pay-to-play to help offset the costs of the sport. According to an Ohio University report, the average cost of equipping a single youth football player is around $558, with a helmet alone costing anywhere from $200 to $350. The report also cites a University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health that found that 51 percent of families with an annual household income of $60,000 or more can afford to have their children participate in high school sports while only 30 percent of students with a household income of less than $60,000 were able to participate in such activities.

Obviously, there are multiple reasons why participation in local high school football does not reach the levels of times gone by. And we won’t second-guess those who consider them and decide it’s better not to play.

But we do salute those who invest their toil and sacrifice in a beloved western Pennsylvania tradition. Best of luck to you all.

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