PIERRE LaBOSSIERE COLUMN: Local turnout appears healthy despite nationwide decline

This week, a group called the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that students’ participation in sports declined for the first time in 31 years.

Despite the state’s population growth, Washington state saw a very small decline, from 175,783 students involved in athletics and activities in 2017 to 174,378 in 2018.

That’s a drop of less than 1 percent, so no need to set off too many alarm bells, yet it could be the beginning of a troubling trend.

The biggest reason for the dropoff is the decline in participation of two sports — football and basketball. It surprised me a little to see basketball there, but not football. Football participation has been declining for decades.

Here are the sports that are on the upswing as far as participation: boys’ cross country, boys and girls’ track and field, boys and girls’ wrestling and girls’ bowling.

What’s going on?

I think two things are going on.

Clearly, football participation is on the decrease because of concerns over concussions. As part of the national drop, 70 percent of the decrease comes from fewer boys playing football. Throughout the past decade, participation in football nationally is down 9 percent.

I think more parents are steering their kids away from football at the youth football stage. I think more kids once they get a concussion or two, quit the sport or take up another sport. Locally, I can think of one very good football player who has switched to soccer because of concussions.

You can get concussions in nearly every sport, but no sport has the issues with concussions that football does. Concussions are a problem in soccer and ice hockey, but not to the degree that they occur in football.

They can make the helmets better, they can lose the contact drills in practice, but the inherent nature of the sport, which is to have big, fast kids trying to knock each other down, will create concussions. And more parents and more kids are making the choice that it’s simply not worth the risk. Honestly, I can’t totally blame them.

One interesting side note to the drop in football numbers. In Washington, at least, 11-man football numbers went down, but 8-man football, which mostly takes places in small schools in small towns, actually went up.

Neah Bay is a remarkable example of how football remains wildly popular in small towns. The Red Devils have 26 kids — in a school of about 100 kids — on the football squad. And they expect more. That means likely more than half the boys in the school are playing football.

Costs hit parents

Getting back to reasons for the nationwide drop, I think another big reason is cost, both to parents and small school districts. Hockey, like football, is an insanely expensive youth sport, where the parents have to buy the helmets and pads and sticks. That’s probably a $1,000 outlay for a parent for equipment. (A stick alone today can cost more than $300.) We’re not even getting into travel.

Likewise, football is an expensive sport. As is basketball, especially if people want their kids to play on travel or elite teams. Perhaps that’s one reason for the drop in basketball?

So, fewer parents can afford for their kids to play certain sports. I think that’s why cross country and track and field are on the rise.

There’s little or no equipment costs, basically you just have to have good shoes to run track.

We see the drop in football participation here, where many of the local teams are lucky if they have more than 25 total kids coming out.

Overall scene is great

However, I am honestly amazed at the overall youth participation in sports in the North Olympic Peninsula. Perhaps the overall national trends are being felt here, but it’s my sense that the local sports programs are thriving. I’ve noticed that a ton of kids around here wrestle (I’d guess considerably more than 100 boys and girls total and several schools don’t even offer wrestling) and the track and field numbers are staggering.

We joke that literally the entire student bodies of Neah Bay, Crescent and Clallam Bay run track and field (these schools have no other spring sports). I bet at those three schools, more than 150 kids run track and field. Several hundred kids on the North Peninsula run track in the spring. It’s a remarkable thing to see, looking at track results. So, that aspect of the national study, we are definitely seeing locally.

As far as wrestling, I’m not surprised to see the growth in the sport for girls. When I first started as a sports editor in Washington in the 1990s, there were a few girl wrestlers, but no girls’ teams. The girls were forced to wrestle boys, and the boys almost always forfeited rather than wrestle a girl. I felt sorry for those girls back then, who wanted to wrestle but simply weren’t being given the opportunity. Now they have the opportunity and are taking advantage of it.

What can be done? I think the trend with football is not going to change, not in the Pacific Northwest. I could see football becoming a more regional sport ingrained in the South like NASCAR, but fading in significance in the rest of the country.

How to defray the costs of youth sports? Maybe pumping more money into recreational sports, offering more scholarships to poor families to cover their costs. It would cost all of us money. I’d pay a bit more taxes for it.

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