Is American football about to meet its Waterloo?

    In 2014 I wrote an article about the concussion issue and how American football was dealing with it, or rather not dealing with it. Since then the long-term effects of concussion have not only become more widely known but we are learning that the effects are more common and devastating than previously understood.

    Participation in football is dropping around the United States. While there may be several reasons for this drop depending on who you talk to, concussion is the one that is mentioned the most by parents of young athletes. Football still is the 'national sport' if there is such a thing in the United States but, one has to wonder, for how much longer?

    Recently football has also become the focus of a political firestorm involving President Trump, the national anthem, NFL players, and (depending on one's point of view) disrespect for the flag and anthem, police brutality, race relations, patriotism, and probably a number of other social issues. This is not good for football. Television ratings are dropping quickly and by large amounts. Attendance at games is declining.

    The decline in ratings and attendance may be short lived but football is still facing serious participation problems and in some states is on life support. Who could have predicted that what was once the most popular sport in North America would, in the space of just twelve years, be struggling for its very existence?

    The paper that sparked the issue and brought concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) into the sport lingo was published in 2005. Since then long-term effects of head trauma have been found to be more common and more serious than originally thought.

    More serious because we now know that the trauma doesn't have to rise to the level of concussion in young athletes to have long-term effects. Subconcussive hits, simply being banged around, can have the same effects on young, immature brains. This cripples football at its foundational level. Chip away at participation in youth and high school football due to fears of chronic brain disease and a shortened lifespan and eventually you will not have any football. The college and professional ranks are supported by the developmental programs run by recreation departments and schools and this is precisely where the present decline in participation is occurring.

    Concussion is not the only factor causing the decline in participation though. In a case of just plain bad luck age-eligible high school boys has also dropped from 13.2 to 12.7 percent.

    Roger Pielke, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder writes, “The relatively small decline in youth participation is not by itself going to strike fear in the hearts of college or pro football teams or their sponsors. However, if current trends continue, or accelerate, this may be a cause for concern.” Pielke claims that participation in high school football peaked in 2009 at about 1.14 million players. It has been declining slowly ever since and is now down to about 1.09 million.

    The news on concussion never gets better and the gradual decline, up until now due mostly to a shrinking population, is now accelerating. The now widely understood danger inherent in the game, dwindling ranks of eligible players, and getting caught up in political and social discord may very well be the beginning of football's Waterloo.

    --------
    Bill Price is the Chief Information Officer for USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

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    10. Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy - 30 May 2016
    11. How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016
    12. USSA Malaysia teaching Fit4Life module in Khidmat Negara pilot - 26 October 2015
    13. The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life - 06 June 2016
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    20. Malaysia's sibutramine incident offers a glimpse into the complexity of the drugs in sport issue - 06 November 2017