High schools impacted by national decline in football participation rates

As high school football teams across the state prep for their first games of the season, Ken Mason, athletic director for West Windsor-Plainsboro, has been worried whether his district would have a season at all.

“It’s an issue and I can’t really answer why, maybe, at this point. But I think we’re going to find out,” said Mason. “Our numbers were low, we were down to 24 kids for the whole program.”

The district has been struggling to find enough athletes to fill its football roster. Mason and school leaders petitioned the state to merge their two high school teams, West Windsor-Plainsboro North and South. Combined, the schools have well over 2,000 students enrolled, but only a few dozen interested in the program.

“The state listened and our league was supportive, but it just didn’t work out,” said Mason, “They wouldn’t let us combine, here at South our numbers are struggling as well.”

It may sound strange for a large school district, in a state where athletics loom large, but the problem is indicative of a national trend. According to the National Federation for State High School Associations, roughly 26,000 fewer boys played high school football for the 2015-2016 school year than just six years earlier. But according to New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Assistant Director Jack Dubois, there are no red flags here.

“The decline from 2015-16 is really insignificant, one half percent. We had a 75 student difference from ‘15-‘16 participation in football. Now, I can say I think there are multiple reasons why there is a decline, number one being parental safety concerns,” said Dubois.

Injuries and concussions are a big one. Especially as the summer headlines have been peppered with mentions of a major study about the brain disease CTE, a study in which 99 percent of the brains of deceased NFL players examined included traces of the disease. But there’s a lot more at play here, too.

“Number two would be the single sport athlete, and number three is demographics of many communities here in New Jersey have changed over last 20 years and football is not part of their demographic culture,” said Dubois.

For the seniors and athletes looking to make a go of it, the dwindling participation is a big hit. The NJSIAA is blocking the school district’s appeal to co-op the teams, saying it goes against by-laws.

“Schools, especially in a contact sport like football, they are concerned about schools becoming a mega … a powerhouse,” Dubois explained.

“I’m a firm believer that children who have opportunity to play sports, particularly competitive sports, it prepares them for life. It develops character,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner.

Turner is proposing legislation to enable districts with multiple schools and a decline in athletic participation to combine teams.

“We do not believe we’ll play JV again next year,” said Mason, “We’ll have to make a decision. Either go independent and get our own schedule because after we declared we can’t play varsity, there were several other schools in the state that dropped as well. Pitman down in South Jersey, they dropped, Ridgefield, so I think there’s a real concern.”

So for now, West Windsor-Plainsboro North will have to play with just a junior varsity team while they wait for that pending vote on the legislation which comes in December, after the season is over.