Football's Friday night lights are shining for fewer families in Illinois this fall. High school participation in the sport has reached a 26-year low in the state and is falling far faster than the national rate.
Touchdowns, cheerleaders and marching bands are still part of the fabric of American life, but what's getting increasingly serious consideration is the health impact of playing a game that revolves around violent contact. Especially worrisome is the prevalence of concussions, which can cause long-term brain damage.
More parents and high school students are looking at the risks of a serious brain injury, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and deciding against the game. There are plenty of other sports and leisure activities for high schoolers, and lots of other ways to capture families' time, energy and money.
Figures released by the National Federation of State High School Associations show that overall sports participation in the nation dipped in 2018 for the first time in three decades.
Football fell the most: Over the last 12 years, the number of students playing the sport is down 8 percent nationally. In Illinois, it has plummeted 25 percent, dropping below 40,000 for the first time since 1993, reports John Keilman in the Tribune.
Football coaches attribute some reticence to the rigors of the game, including grueling summer practices. But there's no doubt increased awareness of tackle football's dangers is persuading would-be players not to put on pads.
The same logic holds for star athletes: Look at Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who walked away from the game last month at age 29, leaving behind a fortune in salary and endorsements in the interest of his health.
The scariest stats about football relate to CTE, the devastating brain disease found in 99 percent of NFL players whose remains were examined in one study. CTE was first identified in a professional football player in 2002 and can only be diagnosed after death.
In some ways it's still early days in understanding how severely football can injure its participants, with special attention on young athletes who play in high school or college but not the pros. They may quit the game, but damage remains. CTE has been found in those players, too, at lower rates.
Discipline, physicality and competition haven't lost their value for young athletes bristling with energy that needs a positive outlet.
What's also certain, though, is that high school football's hold on the country is no longer guaranteed. The more Americans learn about potential lifelong dangers, the more concerned they will be about cheering football, and certainly about allowing their children to play.
As the numbers attest, some families are sticking with football, and some families are making other choices.
The game will have to continue evolving to become safer in order to convince parents and school officials to support it. Otherwise participation in football will decline, until eventually the Friday night lights go out.
Chicago Tribune, Friday