Varsity Xtra: Football rosters dwindle with concussions as culprit
September 6, 2013 8:00 PM
Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render gathers his team before the game against Woodland Hills at the Wolvarena in Turtle Creek. The Panthers have 10 fewer players in 2013 than 10 years ago.
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Mt. Lebanon football team had to cancel its junior-varsity game against North Allegheny last Saturday because it was short-handed. Due to some injuries and a much smaller-than-usual roster, Mt. Lebanon didn't have enough linemen to play the game.
This from Mt. Lebanon, which has a winning tradition and is the seventh-largest school in the 125-team Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League.
But Mt. Lebanon's player situation isn't unique. Mt. Lebanon simply is an example of a sports fact of life these days.
The number of high school athletes playing football is dwindling.
For the past few years, the number of high school football players around the country has dropped dramatically. An annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations showed that more than 25,000 fewer kids played football in the U.S. last year than only four years before. About 10,000 fewer kids played last year than 2011.
And nowhere is the shrinking of rosters more evident than in Western Pennsylvania high schools.
From big schools in Class AAAA to small schools in Class A, many rosters are shrinking, and some by a large amount. Although there could be a few different reasons why fewer kids are playing football, everyone from coaches, to school administrators, to parents say the main reason is fear of concussions.
"Things are cyclical, but I think the stuff that has been in the news the last couple of years about concussions has created a downturn in numbers," Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk said. "Does that mean it's going to continue to go any lower? It's hard to say."
"It's reality," WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. "Concussion awareness has begun to have an impact not only nationally, but in our area. Football is the sport most people are concerned about with concussions."
It might be unfair to compare roster sizes at most WPIAL schools today to those in the 1960s, '70s and '80s because student enrollments are much smaller at many schools due to population loss. But comparing roster sizes in Class AAAA in the past decade reveals plenty.
• Sixteen of the 25 Class AAAA teams that were playing in the WPIAL 10 years ago have smaller rosters than in 2003. And those numbers are skewed some by the fact that some schools have cut their ninth-grade teams because of low numbers the past few years and now have freshmen on varsity rosters.
• Some rosters have decreased dramatically. Mt. Lebanon has only 58 players, one of its smallest ever. Mt. Lebanon had 75 players 10 years ago. Fifteen players at the school who played as freshmen did not come out for football this season.
• Woodland Hills has 62 players, compared to 94 a decade ago.
• Upper St. Clair has 55 players, compared to 65 in 2003. Shaler has 19 fewer players than 2003 and Baldwin 21 fewer.
Many teams in Class AAA, AA and A also have watched their rosters drop dramatically the past few years. Geibel, a small Catholic school in Connellsville, forfeited two games last season because of a shortage of players, and the Gators have forfeited their game tonight against Frazier because of too few players.
At Brownsville, a Class AA school, there are 28 players on the roster, including seven freshmen. Ten years ago, Brownsville had 38 players and no freshmen.
Blackhawk, a Class AAA school, has 71 players this season, but 26 are freshmen. Ten years ago, the Cougars had 60 players, but no freshmen.
The problem with roster size goes deeper than high schools. In the past few years, a number of schools have folded their ninth-grade programs. Of the 53 WPIAL schools that have Class AAAA and AAA varsity teams this season, only 34 asked the WPIAL for ninth-grade schedules. Upper St. Clair has a ninth-grade team, but coach Jim Render remembers when he became the Panthers' varsity coach in 1979, the school had two ninth-grade teams.
Some schools cut their ninth-grade programs to save money.
"But, candidly, for most of them it was because of low numbers," O'Malley said.
Many youth football programs also are lacking players. When Joe Nicholas took over the South Suburban Youth Football League seven years ago, it had 16 programs with teams at six different age levels (7 to 12-13 year-olds). Now, there are only eight youth programs in the league -- Baldwin, West Mifflin, Moon, Thomas Jefferson, Montour, West Allegheny, Brookline and North Hills.
South Park, Carlynton and Brentwood are among the teams that dropped out in the past few years.
"The South Side Sabers dropped out this year," Nicholas said. "They've been around forever. When I came in seven years ago, they were loaded. This year, they only had 27 kids in their entire program.
"We've always had teams just with single-age groups. But programs said, 'Listen, we don't have enough players to stay and play.' So, next year, we're going to go with double-age groups just so programs can have enough kids to make teams."
The concussion effect
Coaches will tell you concussions and all the reports about concussions and their effect has taken away players from football. Hampton's Collin Luther is a good example.
Luther is a 6-foot-6 senior who started at tight end and receiver the past two seasons. But he sustained two concussions last football season and another one in basketball this past spring. True, Luther is being recruited by Division I colleges for basketball, but he is not playing football this year because of the concussions.
When Collin decided not to play this year, his brother, Ryan, also a basketball standout, gave up football, too. Ryan, who stands 6 feet 7, was slated to be Hampton's starting quarterback this season.
"I know basketball is what I want to play in the future, and that, along with the concussions, is why I'm not playing football," Collin said. "I got two in football last year and, in April, I got another one playing basketball. Up until that last concussion, I was really debating whether or not to play football. After that last concussion, I decided football was not really worth it."
Luther's father, Bill, backed his sons' decisions to quit football.
"The concussion thing really pushed Collin," Bill Luther said. "Even if Collin didn't have the basketball options, I would recommend him not to play. The last concussion he got was just brutal."
Mt. Lebanon's Melnyk said, "There's no question the litigation going on these days with concussions is starting to have an impact, especially on parents."
Latrobe is one school where the football roster has shrunk in recent years. A few years ago, Latrobe cut its ninth-grade program, both for financial reasons and because there weren't many players.
Upper St. Clair's Render, the winningest coach in WPIAL history, believes an overreaction from some parents about concussions is adversely affecting football.
"I just read an article a guy wrote that says football is, by far, safer than it ever has been," Render said. "Helmet manufacturers have done great things. ... I've told this to some of my parents. If you're a young parent, you should be more concerned about your child going to college and dying of alcohol poisoning than him playing football. Or you should be much more concerned about your child driving a car than playing football.
"I think a lot of young women who are moms and never played football read this stuff about concussions and draw conclusions about football.
"I heard a report recently where hundreds of people die every year on ATVs [all terrain vehicles]. Maybe 300 are kids. If there were 300 kids who died in a year playing football, there would be a federal outcry. Nevertheless, nobody says much and we keep putting kids on ATVs."
The other reasons
Tim Fogarty is the longtime owner of Century Sports, a Peters Township company that sells sports apparel and equipment to many high school and youth league teams in Western Pennsylvania. Fogarty talks to many coaches and said football rosters are down at many levels, but moreso in suburban areas, for some reason.
"North Allegheny is about the only place where numbers keep going up," Fogarty said.
Fogarty says just about every coach blames the falloff in player participation on one thing -- concussions.
But some parents, players and even some coaches believe there might be another reason kids aren't playing football as much. It's the time demand in the offseason.
Preparation for high school football has become a year-round process. It's very common for teams to ask their players to lift weights or come to "voluntary" workouts four days in the summer. The workouts could last up to three hours. Then teams might participate in 7 on 7 scrimmages (without full pads).
Many coaches will debate whether they are asking for too much time from players in the offseason. But one coach who preferred not to be named, said football is losing the marginal athlete who maybe isn't good enough to start on a team and doesn't want to put in so much time in the offseason.
"He'll maybe go play another sport where he doesn't have to lift weights maybe year round or work out as much in the offseason," the coach said. "Some kids just don't want to have to work hard at something."
The proliferation of other sports also has hurt football. Some coaches believe lacrosse has pulled players away from football.
"I've always thought you should play a number of sports because each one offers different athleticism," Latrobe coach Ray Reitz said. "The problem is some coaches -- and some parents -- only want you to stay in one sport and think you have to stay in one sport to be good."
Render said, "Nowadays, you have fall baseball, basketball tournaments every month of the year, traveling soccer, traveling everything. That pulls some kids away from football, but I don't think football is emphasized too much. Maybe in Alabama or Texas, but certainly not in Pennsylvania. In fact, I think our state does some things to hold football back."
But the main question is where does it end? Will more small schools fold football teams in the next decade? Football might not be dying or even on life- support. But the exodus of players recently has kicked high school football in the gut.
"I told a few people that I could see somewhere down the road that the rules of football change some," Melnyk said. "Maybe you have to address the problem."
Render said, "I think we need to worry about [fewer players] and I think the NFL is worried about it. You see they're more involved in youth football and the promotion of youth football. They're concerned that the player numbers could continue to drop and even fan interest drop."