High School Football: The Folly of Trying to Sustain the Unsustainable

There were two recent items in the media regarding high school tackle football that, taken together, provide a strong hint of the future of the sport in our schools.

The first was a report that a three-judge panel of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court rejected an attempt by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) to have a suit against it tossed out. The suit demanded extensive steps to limit the harm from concussions among high school and junior high athletes.

The second was a report from Oklahoma Watch outlining how high school athletes in that state are sustaining hundreds of concussions and how the high schools are woefully understaffed with athletic trainers and licensed medical professionals trained to identify, treat and prevent brain trauma in athletes.

Taken together, these two developments point to the folly of attempting to sustain an activity that is becoming increasingly unsustainable by the day. While many will lament this reality, if one is willing to approach it in an open and honest way, it could provide an opportunity to create a blueprint for the future of high school sports in America.

There are several trends regarding the sport as well as the challenges facing our secondary school system that will make the sponsorship of tackle football increasingly problematic. The first is the mounting evidence of the link between participation in football and damage to the brain. Seemingly every day there is a new study confirming the harmful outcomes of participation in football. This trend is not likely to abate anytime soon.

In response to this alarming trend, football advocates point to various safety measures such as improved equipment, increased medical oversight and staffing and improved concussion testing and protocol. While these efforts are commendable, they are measures that require significantly more costs for an already very expensive sport. Another example of an expense that will rise dramatically relates to risk management and the cost of liability insurance. As a result, educational leaders will be asked to evaluate the supposed benefits of football against the very real risk of their students suffering debilitating injuries to their brains. Many of them will come to the conclusion that the risk is simply too great.

And if these troubling trends are not enough, they are playing out against an environment of increasing academic expectations and tightening school budgets. In such an environment, it will be more difficult for an educational institution to justify allocating additional resources for an activity that scrambles brains. Educational institutions are in the business of strengthening brains, not destroying them.

In short, while there may always be communities and school districts that will continue to sponsor tackle football, given these trends and the reality they reveal, with each passing day, it will become increasingly clear that high school football is no longer a sound educational investment. As a result, the sponsorship of football in our secondary and junior high schools will slowly but surely wither on the vine.

If kept safe and in the proper perspective, interscholastic sports can be a powerful supplement to the educational experience of young people. Thus, it is understandable why educational leaders remain reluctant to eliminate any interscholastic sports. But football, due to it’s extremely barbaric nature, is a different animal. But rather than bemoan and resist this reality, the elimination of football presents an opportunity to restructure the role that sports plays in our schools.

Specifically, it is time for educational leaders to begin to seriously consider moving to the European model of school sports. In that model, elite athletes pursue their athletic experience through participation in private club teams. The role of school athletics in the European system is to provide broad based participation opportunities in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime (i.e., the type of programming that has traditionally been provided through physical education classes and intramural and wellness programs). This, as opposed to our current system of highly competitive interscholastic programs that are geared to a small percentage of elite athletes while relegating the vast majority of students to the sidelines to watch. In one of the world’s most obese nations, such an approach simply makes no sense.  

That said, interscholastic sports have become so ingrained within the culture of the school and broader community, that moving directly to the European club system may not be realistic at this point.

Perhaps there is an intermediate step.  The elimination of football provides an opportunity to redirect the resources, energy and emotion currently allocated to football to not only other interscholastic sports such as soccer, basketball, swimming, cross country and baseball (sports that are less physically punishing and that can be practiced for a lifetime) but also to strengthening physical education and intramural programs as well as lifelong wellness activities such as yoga and weight training. Such a shift will clearly result in far better health and fitness outcomes for far more students than the current tackle football centric model.  This might be a viable intermediate step to eventually moving to the European model of scholastic sports and fitness.

In short, it’s time to stop trying to sustain the unsustainable. With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that both from an educational and public health standpoint, the European school and community sports model is far superior to our current football-centric elite athletic system. That being the case, rather than bemoaning the growing negative health and safety trend lines associated with tackle football, education and community leaders should seek to leverage those developments to re-imagine and restructure how schools can more effectively utilize sports and fitness activities for more positive community health outcomes.

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