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Editorial: Is football on its knees as a favorite pastime?
Injury risk, protests cut into popularity of fall’s top sport
10012017 NFL PROTEST 2
Cleveland Browns fans hold a sign following the national anthem before the Sept. 24 game in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy) - photo by Associated Press

It may seem sacrilege to even whisper such in October in North Georgia, but it’s worth asking: Is football fading as America’s favorite sport? The trends may be headed in that direction both in youthful participation and wavering interest in pro football, one decline eventually leading to the other.

Football is no longer the popular choice for many youngsters, likely due to the effort and time required and injury risks. Parents fearing lifelong brain injuries from repeated head trauma may steer their kids toward sports like soccer and basketball that are full of action with less injury risk and don’t require as much costly equipment. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, more than 23,000 players, the biggest two-year decline it has recorded.

Participation is also down at the high school level. Hall County schools average 11 fewer players per roster than 10 years ago, five schools with double-digit decreases while only West Hall and Lakeview Academy have bigger rosters. This is reflected nationwide, the number of high school players dropping by 25,901 participants in 2016-17, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Football is a demanding sport that requires endless hours of fitness training and weightlifting. It involves days of practice leading to just a few hours of actual game action each week. In an era when youngsters have so many other leisure options, it’s a price many don’t want to pay.

“Just being honest, a lot of kids are not willing to work hard enough to be as good as they need to be in football,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We live in a ‘microwave’ generation — we want to put it in for 30 seconds and have it be good. Football is kind of a crockpot sport; you put it in and let it simmer and get better. ... A lot of kids don’t want to wait on things anymore and are looking for other sports where that can happen and they can be an instant success.”

But football’s loudest death knell may have been rung in a report on traumatic brain injuries from neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee that found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of 110 of the 111 deceased former National Football League players tested. Players with CTE can face depression, pain-killer addiction and suicide. The NFL was accused of covering up such danger and ended up settling a lawsuit from its Players Association that may cost more than $1 billion over time. 

Now the NFL faces another public relations nightmare over national anthem protests. It began last year when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police shootings of black men. Only a few players joined, and Kaepernick later found himself out of a job, some believing his political stance ostracized him.

This season, dozens of players, sometimes entire teams, are kneeling during the anthem. President Donald Trump joined criticism of the league and urged teams to fire any “SOB” who takes a knee. The result was even more players joining in, many owners adding their support by linking arms during the anthem.

The resulting debate over freedom of speech vs. patriotic observance hasn’t helped the NFL’s popularity. TV ratings were down four weeks into the season after viewership fell 8 percent last year, even before the protests alienated many fans.

How can football regain its footing? It could begin with an honest, independent study of brain injuries that leads to innovated safety rules, training techniques and equipment. Already the NFL punishes illegal hits more severely and limits kick returns that involve frequent high-speed collisions. At the youth level, young players must learn tackling techniques that don’t lead with the head, a leading cause of concussions. 

And if helmet technology could devise headgear that protects the head more securely while not acting as a weapon to inflict further injury, it could reduce CTE risk.

Fans still love football. High school stadiums remain raucous and spirited on Friday nights, and UGA’s Sanford Stadium and Georgia Tech’s Grant Field bustle with eager fans on Saturdays. The Atlanta Falcons are filling their new $1.5 billion palace with hopes of a Super Bowl return, while here in Gainesville, all eyes are on Houston and the electric start to the pro career of hometown hero Deshaun Watson.

But to keep future Deshauns involved in the sport, changes need to be made at every level. Otherwise, fall weekends might be a little quieter in the years to come.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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