As I scanned my Facebook feed last night while I waited for practices to wrap up I noticed that a colleague had shared and commented on a recent USA today article regarding concussions. Although the article was interesting and something I may talk about at a later date, what caught my attention was a related article with a striking headline at the bottom of the page. The article was from May of 2016 and the title declared Expert: Concussions will change, not kill football. Of course I then spent a few minutes reading an article I probably read back when it was published and I couldn’t help but think that this expert opinion is already out of date. The game of football is forever changed by the prevalence of, and new awareness about the dangers of improperly treating a concussion and the long-term effects it may have. The game of football has changed, and this change will continue to be more prevalent as more and more high schools across the country transition to 8-Man football programs or eliminate their programs completely.
How the NFL’s Concussion Crisis Is Impacting High School Football
As a high school athletic trainer (AT) I’m constantly educating the public on what I do. This is the never-ending struggle of an AT, to be seen and appreciated for what we are, allied health care providers with a vast and constantly cultivated knowledge of many subjects. One subject very close to my heart is adolescent concussions. I’ve read every article I can find, I’ve researched all sorts of treatments, and am constantly working with colleagues of all kinds on how best to protect, treat, and assist young athletes who have suffered concussions. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been volunteering, or working in athletic training rooms, I’ve seen changes but the information is constantly evolving and developing on how best to prevent, treat, and rehabilitate a concussed athlete. Although football is not the only sport that I see concussions in, it is the one that gets the most attention. My first response to the question of why I think that is, is always the same. Football concussions get the most attention because of the concussion crisis the NFL saw starting in 2013 with the release of League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. That moment in time was a catalyst for the changes I am seeing everyday on my high school’s campus. I also am hearing rumors about it happening at other schools all across the state of California and I would bet, across the entire United States as well.
Why Eight-Man Football?
8-Man football is going to be the new normal at many high schools. I predict this transition will become even more common over the next five to 10 years especially at schools that probably would never trouble fielding a football team. Just wait for it. Never heard of 8-Man football? Well, you’re not alone. I knew about it, but hadn’t really heard too much until about three years ago when our JV team played against an 8-Man team on an early Saturday morning. Basically the main differences are a shorter, less wide field and only eight players line up on each side of the ball, two less lineman and one less skill player. At that time, our coaches were a bit lost with how things were supposed to happen and the officials were reading out of their rule books up until the minute the game started. It just wasn’t common place in Orange County, Calif. Now, you’re going to see it everywhere. I’ll bet on it and I’m not a gambler, unless you count scratch-off lottery tickets because I love to win with scratchers.
Everyone wants to know why my school’s football program transitioned this past year to 8-Man football. It’s always first “Why did you do it?” and then, “How do we do it?” Eventually the conversation turns into somewhat of a debate on whether it’s even really football. After two weeks of games and over a month of practices I can assure you, 8-Man football is FOOTBALL in every sense of the word. I’ve been watching this game my whole life, thanks to a house divided (Dad and brother are die-hard Raider fans while my Mom is a loyal fan of the 49ers…that’s the real Battle of the Bay!), and what I see at my school throughout the week of practice and under the lights on Friday night is the game of football. So, let me get back to why we transitioned. I could go into it and explain that we are an extremely academic school with high standards and expectations, we’ve had four coaches in the past four years, or that we’re a small school with small enrollment (approx. 520) but the bottom line that I see is that parents aren’t encouraging their kids to risk their investments. Parents of students at my school, and across the state, who are likely successful individuals in their own right, do not invest this much in their child’s high school education to willingly put that investment at risk. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that concussions are brain injuries and you only get one brain. It’s not common for my student athletes to have little to no experience playing tackle football before high school. The common reason I hear is that their parents felt it was too dangerous and too much of a risk. Now I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, and I’m not saying that everyone feels this way, but times have changed. When I was a kid, every strong young boy signed up for the youth Pop Warner football program, my older brother included, and I just don’t see that in Orange County where there are hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls who are eligible for this sport.
In early August the LA Times published an online article that stated High school football participation drops by 3,520 in the state of California. The number of participants in the article is for the 2015-16 academic year. I hope they follow up to show this year’s numbers because I predict they are much lower. Working through my seventh year at a small high school, I have seen the numbers on our roster shrink to less than half of what we had in the fall of 2010 when I first started. Every week I hear rumors (I work at a high school so rumors are common) that another school is looking at possibly transitioning to 8-Man football. Yesterday, I heard that a large school -- with an enrollment well of more than 1,500 students -- in the surrounding area is considering the transition next year. It may be shocking to others, but not to me.
For the high school where I work, 8-Man football is a perfect fit. We can adequately field a team after struggling for years to fill our roster and I honestly feel that our kids are as safe as they can be in a violent, full-contact sport because we are finally matching up against similar schools with similar-sized student athletes. After a 71-44 win last Friday night, I think the kids finally believe it too.
If your school or program is considering the transition to 8-Man football, I can tell you you’re not alone. Embrace this change because it is going to be more common over the next five to 10 years as the generations move through this change in the youth levels of this sport that so many Americans love to cheer for on Sundays (and Monday night, and now Thursday night too)!