COLLEGE PARK – When the undefeated St. Frances Academy football team prepared to play Friends School of Baltimore last October, they didn’t expect to win without playing.
But that’s exactly what happened when Friends was forced to forfeit after showing up with only 13 players.
“I was very surprised,” said Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Rick Diggs of the forfeit. “I’ve been director for 20 years and I can’t remember the last forfeit.”
What happened to Friends is unusual, but not unheard of in Maryland.
Football participation in Maryland in the 2011-2012 season dropped by nearly 500 student-athletes from the previous year, a 3.5 percent drop, according to the most recent data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
It’s the largest decline the state has seen in seven years, and the third drop in four years.
The MIAA, which oversees the state’s private schools, has also seen smaller schools like Friends consistently struggle to field full-sized football rosters. The Friends School forfeit was the first of two this season in the MIAA.
“You ideally want 35 kids to a roster, but there just aren’t enough kids to go around,” Diggs said.
To cope with the decline, some schools have begun dropping their freshman or junior varsity squads in an effort to put more players on varsity.
“If the freshman level drops, eventually it will have a larger effect on the varsity program,” said A.K. Johnson, student activities coordinator for Charles County. “It will be interesting to see what happens this year.”
Eric Michael, supervisor of health athletics and physical education for Washington County, said his schools have also struggled to field multiple teams recently, noting that some teams have hovered around the “20-25 mark” the last three years.
“We’ve always fielded three teams, but because of our smaller schools, at times it has been difficult to field a JV and freshman team,” he said. “You’ve got to be smart about it. If our numbers are down, we’re not going to put a team out there.”
Athletics officials said growing parental concerns about safety in football could explain part of the drop.
In 2002, a study was published linking physical violence in football to long term brain damage known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
To combat the growing concern over the safety of its players, the NFL has initiated rule changes and new testing protocols to limit hits to the head and concussions. More than 2,000 former players are now suing the league for not warning them about the possible long term ramifications of football.
“The concussion thing is a concern,” said John Gillis, associate director for publication and communications at the National Federation of State High School Associations. “There could be parents out there who have pulled their kids out [because of fear of concussions].”
Michael, the Washington County athletics supervisor, is one of those parents.
“I was a football player, I’ve been a coach and I’m a parent. And I’m not so sure about my son playing. I held him out this year because I don’t want him being improperly taught at this young age.”
But officials aren’t pointing to safety concerns as the sole reason for the drop.
“We aren’t drawing the line at concussions,” said Bob Colgate, the director of sports and sports medicine at the National Federation of State High School Associations. “There are many factors our states are looking at, like consolidation between schools.”
“You can hypothesize on many things,” said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. “People not being able to afford the pay to play system because of the economy. Are students playing other sports? We’re offering more sports than ever, so that could be a factor.”
The decline is also evident at the sport’s lowest levels. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth football experienced a nearly 20 percent drop in participation from 2008-2011, a decline second only to wrestling during that time.
Maryland high school football officials said they will wait to see data from last season before they consider taking more drastic steps to increase participation. The downward trend of participation in football is being felt more drastically in other states.
Arizona had 7,800 less high school football players in the 2011 season than the year before, about a 39 percent drop, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Ohio has lost approximately 16 percent of its players in the last four years, and Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota have all experienced four straight years of decline.
“2011 was probably our most substantial drop in terms of football,” Colgate said. “It wasn’t surprising. We’ve talked about this at rules committee meetings and will continue to bring it up at future meetings.”
Like the NFL, the National Federation of State High School Associations has discussed making rule changes to prevent more concussions.
“If we see another sharp decline, we’ll have to take a closer look at things,” Colgate said.
But despite the safety concerns, there are still those who believe in high school football.
“I’m a firm believer there are certain benefits and experiences to be had by playing sports at the high school level,” Gillis said. “It’s part of the high school experience. There’s nothing like it.”