The population of 3,419 residents of Maiden, N.C. likes to call their home "the biggest little football town in the world."
Maiden has a problem, though.
In 2008, the Maiden High School football team looked like this.
This year, it looks like that.
In 11 years, the Maiden university team has slowly decreased. What is happening here happens across the country. At national level, participation of high school students in football at 11 has fallen by more than 10% since 2009.
It falls across the country: on the coast and in the heart of the country, in the Upper Midwest and in the Great South, as well as in California, Florida and Texas.
Note: Participation figures were adjusted for the number of boys enrolled in public schools for each state. | Source: National Federation of State Secondary School Associations, National Center for Education Statistics.
Football has long been a fundamental part of the American identity and will probably be so in the years to come. But it has become a controversial topic of security and must compete each year with the popularity of other sports. In Maiden and elsewhere, the happy nights of Friday and Saturday afternoons remain, but they are different now.
In December 2017, in the morning, some of the most powerful men of football gathered in a hotel in downtown New York with a mission essential: to save their sport.
Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was present, as well as the Commissioner of the N.F.L., Roger Goodell. The curators of the Power 5 College Sport Conferences were in the room. Along with Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and two Hall of Famers who have become business titans, Roger Staubach and Archie Manning.
The fact that these men felt compelled to turn the rally, an annual meeting of the National Football Foundation, into a strategy session to repel the forces threatening their game, illustrates the dramatic upheavals that football experienced in the past. during the last decade. Over time, public awareness of the role of football in some forms of long-term brain injury has potentially become the kryptonite of sport.
There was no table-hammering, no wringing. But there was a sense of urgency.
"If we stand up for anything, it's about protecting the game. So let's get out of here and get to work," said Steve Hatchell, executive director of the foundation, summarizing the atmosphere in the room that day. .
Football is still the most popular high school sport among boys.
Football remains by far the most popular sport in the country. It attracts huge audiences every week and more children practice it than any other sport. But participation in youth leagues is decreasing. Over the last decade, the number of high school students playing football (the heart and soul of the sport) has dropped by more than 10%. People who play the game are also changing, the number of white players decreasing while black and Hispanic players are an increasing number of players.
White high school students make up a smaller part of football players.
It's harder to measure how fans perceive football, but it's clear that football has become something else for which people are for or against. Several states are questioning whether young people should even play the sports training version because they weigh in the legislation to impose a minimum age to play.
As research on football damage to young athletes develops, and stories about the reduced abilities of the former N.F.L. the big ones continue to be a vital part of the sports conversation, some parents ended up fearing to put their children at risk by letting them play football.
These forces make the guarantee of the future of sport a major challenge. Participation in football is falling even in unexpected places, while football and running have increased considerably.
Football participation is declining in the states that generally feed the N.F.L.
In Texas, the state that offered us $ 70 million in high school stadiums and "Friday Night Lights," participation in football dropped by 10%. Ohio produced the fourth highest total of N.F.L. players, but participation fell by 27% in Buckeye State. Eight high schools in Ohio were unable to form teams capable of playing football even at eight players last year.
Kansas, struck by budget cuts, saw its participation fall by 13%. With this decline, expensive football programs have become an easy target for school boards looking to save money. The state now has 12 football schools with six players.
It is impossible to determine one of the reasons for the decline. Specialization has affected all sports, as well as the growth of video games and e-sports.
However, it is also impossible to ignore the impact of health and safety, especially with regard to brain damage.
High school students are twice as likely to suffer a football head injury in a game than the nearest sport, but they are also more likely to be injured in the football head than any other injury recorded in another football. sport. the national monitoring study of sports-related injuries in secondary schools.
Caine Houser, athletic director of Maiden High School in North Carolina, at the heart of the incubator of many university programs, summed up the psyche that her staff must fight: "Parents are afraid of head injuries and rightly so. "
Common injuries among boys among high school popular sports
Injuries for 10,000 competition matches
The New York Times commissioned a national online survey of 1,000 boys aged 14 to 17. The survey, conducted by Pollfish and PredictWise this fall, found that 9% of people who identified themselves as footballers said their parents had expressed concerns about head injuries, compared to 3% of wrestlers and 2% hockey players. Yet only 4% of boys who left football said it was their personal concerns about head injuries that motivated their departure. One-third of the former players said that they had just lost interest, another third became busy with something else and 15% said that they had just started practicing another sport.
Houser said that the number of players in the Maiden junior football team has gone from 39 to 39, up from 30 since 2008. That decline, he said, is worse in neighboring districts where teams Junior football were closed. Parents direct their children to year-round sports, such as baseball and basketball, to help them build a collegiate team.
While coaches have tried to address their concerns by teaching new wrestling techniques and by closely monitoring head injuries, Houser said it could be very difficult when "parents are trapped" do not take the risk ".
The headwinds are real, but football still operates in a strong position. In 2018, for example, nine of the ten most-watched shows in prime time were N.F.L. or college football games. The golden age of football may be behind, but it remains to debate the question of whether it is evolving slowly, about to be reborn or to collapse.
In the coming weeks, the Times will examine football's hold on America, children and their parents in the center of the country, in public high schools and elite colleges.
A significant decrease in football awareness would represent a significant cultural shift in America. Sport has long since passed baseball as a true national pastime, both in terms of participation and fanaticism, and seeing its numbers drop represents a chance to understand in real time the speed with which the terrain can evolve.
In the middle of the 20th century, boxing and horse racing reigned, then, suddenly, it was no longer the case. Few people understood or explored the dynamics – safety concerns increased and entertainment options increased – while they were ongoing.
Admittedly, the 30 or so members of the board of directors of the National Football Foundation present in the hall this morning of December 2 understood that they had to try to change the speech that surrounds their match. All were volunteers. All were there on their own. Most had played the game and attributed their success to lessons learned in the field. They are savvy businessmen and many have been invested to make this sport a multi-billion dollar industry at the top of the country's entertainment pyramid.
The organization was founded in 1947, at the football's ascent, by a war hero, a coach and a sports journalist: General Douglas MacArthur; Army coach Red Blaik; and Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune. They wanted to make sure that football lived in a sacred place in the American psyche. Its mission was simple: to promote football as a way to shape future leaders through sportsmanship, competition and academic excellence.
At the end of the December 2017 meeting, football brokers decided to try to make this mission relevant to the 21st century.
In the space of a few weeks, money began to pour in. Kraft and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and board member, and Goodell, representing the NF, paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars. The commissioners of N.C.A.A are committed to setting aside money in the college football playoffs. Several doctors offered their advice, including those skeptical about research linking repeated blows to the head with degenerative brain disease.
Virtually overnight, the change in football brand may have become the largest part of the foundation's portfolio, following the maintenance of the University Football Hall of Fame and the recognition of academic achievements by university football players.
In May 2018, the #FootballMatters campaign began to spread across multiple platforms. On the Football Matters website, there were resources for parents on rule changes and safety breakthroughs; articles on leadership and teamwork and mastering adversity; and football-friendly data, such as the number of field football field colleges (775, with the addition of seven more by 2022) and the number of college players working on their college diploma. master's degree (1,439 out of about 73,000).
Every Friday, fans who connect to Football Matters on social media get "hype videos" from high school coach pre-game discussions with their teams. For casual fans, there is a documentary about Polynesian football or a YouTube video from a women's football league in Utah.
The five-year campaign has cost $ 2 million so far. The leaders of the foundation say they have taken care not to allow the N.F.L. and the N.C.A.A., or their largesse, to take the lead in a campaign for ordinary people. Does it work? It is too early to tell. TV ratings rebound after a period of decline, but participation continued to decline.
"We will not change anyone, but we hope to put football in a more complete context and give people enough information so that they can make their own decisions," said Ken Luce, partner founder of LDWW, the Dallas-based marketing agency, which runs the campaign.
Other athletes wanting to keep the importance of football have redoubled their efforts to build a better helmet, but the structure of the human head – hard skull, soft brain – complicates the task. Pop Warner insists that it is safer to tackle, even though many neuroscientists are skeptical. Teams and coaches at all levels are reducing the number of contact practices, as scientists are increasingly warning of the risk of concussions but also of repeated head and body blows. Nobody knows how much is too much.
"We are facing a lot of problems, the most important of which is that you can hurt yourself by playing football," said Hatchell, executive director of the foundation. "But we decided to be an actor of the conversation. To repel. "
Hatchell admits that the foundation – and all the game's boosters – must be agile and aggressive in telling people that their game is evolving for the better. "It's still the most popular sport in the world," said Hatchell. "So, how can we continue to build on that?"