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Don't lament high school football

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Monday, September 10, 2018

The Washington Post

Should children be allowed to play tackle football? With scientific studies showing a link between the sport and traumatic brain injuries that lead to lasting health problems, that question is being asked with more frequency and urgency across the country. Not surprisingly, the answer from many parents is that their children's well-being is too important to risk for the sake of a game — no matter how bright the Friday night lights.

Schools are back in session, and high school football season has started; not, though, at three schools in the Washington area. Two high schools in suburban Virginia, Manassas Park and Park View, and one in suburban Maryland, Bladensburg, announced they won't be fielding varsity teams because of safety concerns and a lack of participation. Not enough players showed up to field a team. They aren't alone — schools in Charles City, Virginia, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Bedford, Kentucky, also canceled varsity football this year, part of a downward trend in participation that has marked the sport in recent years.

While high school football still attracts more players than other sports, the numbers have been steadily falling. Data released last month by the National Federation of State High School Associations showed a 2 percent drop in participation, 20,000 fewer players, between 2016 and 2017. Football enrollment in the past decade declined 6.6 percent, according to the association's data.

A number of factors are seen as responsible for the decline. Included are declining student enrollments, changing demographics, schools offering alternative sports and players specializing in one sport. Clearly, though, the biggest issue has been increased awareness about the health problems associated with football. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is linked to the hits to the head that occur in tackle football on both the amateur and professional levels; studies show that CTE can lead to, among other things, dementia and depression. One study showed that athletes who played tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life.

"Football is not on a good path right now," a varsity football coach whose New Jersey high school struggled last year to field a team told The Post's Jacob Bogage. That may well be true, but laments for a sport that holds such clear risks are misplaced. Parents and schools are right to reassess the wisdom of tackle football for children whose young brains are still developing.

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