Participation numbers in high school athletics are on the rise, however, according to the National Federation of State Associations the number of athletes strapping on a football helmet is dropping. According to the federation, the number of high school students playing football has been on the decline both at the national and state level.
Locally, that trend has been playing out as well — with some schools struggling with the number of players available on a Friday night. Moundridge has seen that happen — as enrollment dipped in the high school the number of football players dipped as well. For Moundridge, the solution to the problem is to change the field configuration and schedule to participate in eight-man football.
"I hate to say we are doing this because we have to," said Superintendent George Leary. "There is a bigger approach, it is about opportunities for kids, and good opportunities for kids. When you have so few kids playing, 11-man football doesn't make any sense."
The problem with participation is not limited to smaller schools — it is seemingly everywhere.
"We are seeing where we used to get 30 to 40 kids out at every grade level, in some of the younger grades we're seeing numbers in the mid-20s now," said Brian Becker, athletic director for Newton High School. "We are seeing a decline in the overall numbers. In our league, even a lot of bigger schools are seeing that decline. We played three or four 5A schools this year that could not field a freshman team because either injuries or numbers did not allow them to do that."
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation by boys in 2016-17 fell for the sixth time in seven years, now at 1,057,407. From the NFHS:
The Federation reports participation in 11-player football was down 25,901 from the previous year, although the numbers in six and eight player football were up from the 2015-16 season. The overall number of participants in football in 2016-17 was 1,086,748, down 25,503 from the 1,112,251 in the 2015-16 season.
In Kansas, participation in 11-man football has dropped dramatically over the past five years — from a peak of 13,959 boys in 2013 to 12,706 in 2016, the most recent numbers available from the NFSHA. Prior to the 2016 season, nine schools dropped out of the 11-man classifications. During the same time span, the number of eight-man teams has remained fairly constant — 112 in 2014 and 111 in 2016, though participation has dropped. In 2012 there were 2,239 players in eight-man, that dropped to 2,013 in 2016.
Total participation at the state level has dropped from a five-year peak of 16,314 players in 2015 to 14,720 in 2016.
There's some conventional wisdom about why this is happening — USA Today, Forbes Magazine and Sports Illustrated have all published articles attributing the decline, at least in part, to the fear of concussions and injuries.
Just last month the U.S. Congress questioned former NFL players and their wives about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, also known as CTE. According to Boston University, CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.
Becker said that is a real concern — though there is likely no one reason for the decline in participation.
"The injury risk is greater overall," Becker said. "It is greater because there is more physical contact. It is also a perception thing. There is a perception that concussions are horrible, and while they are not good, there are things we teach our players to prevent them. ... We are more aware, so we are properly training and equipping players to be more cognizant of what they are doing on the field."
Within the last two years, Moundridge has entered games with less than 20 players on the roster. That is not a unique situation — in the 2016 football season Burrton finished their eight-man season with only nine players on the roster — injuries had depleted the bench.
In Burrton, the solution was to convince athletes walking the halls to come out for football. Coach Chris Jensen started recruiting athletes from other sports in the offseason. The result was more bodies and a season-opening victory that snapped the longest losing streak in the county.
“When we played (Fairfield) in basketball we were 30 points better than them. It came to me, that we have athletes in our school if we can get them out. From that moment on, I started working on getting the athletes out," Jensen said.
His answer to Burrton's problem is one Becker said is what could serve as a solution at bigger schools — where the decline may not be tied to total enrollment issues.
"As a whole league, we talk about what we can do about numbers and what we can do to recruit kids," Becker said. "It really is a recruitment process in your school of going out and educating kids and families to get them to play."
Other schools have not been so lucky. In the eight-man ranks, St. John- Hudson forfeited to Goessel this season. They did not have enough players to play. Some teams in the eight-man ranks have dropped out of KHSHAA football altogether — playing six-man football games. The six-man game, invented in Chester, Nebraska, during the Great Depression, returned to Kansas after a hiatus in 2014 when Weskan, a small school district near the Colorado border, made the switch. Last year was the first "Wild West Bowl," which crowned an unofficial state champion out of six teams playing six-man football.
KSHAA officials expect the six-man ranks to grow — possibly even double in the next two-year scheduling cycle. KSHSAA by-laws state there needs to be a minimum of 24 schools to create a new classification for any sport. Until then, six-man will not be a sanctioned sport — and the players on those teams will not be counted in state participation numbers.
"You still have to block and tackle," Leary said. "That will not change from 11-man to eight-man to six-man."