Is High School Football An Endangered Sport?(Chicago Tribune)

By Gregory Wallance


November 1, 2014

October was a bad month for high school football.

Sayreville War Memorial High School in New Jersey canceled the rest of its season after seven football players were criminally charged and five coaches were suspended over sexual assault allegations. Two football players and three coaches at Agoura High School in California were suspended after an “unacceptable” incident in a team bus — the details of which have yet to be disclosed.

Central Bucks High School West in suburban Philadelphia canceled the remainder of its top-ranked football team’s season and suspended all of its coaches, also due to accusations of sexual assault by players. Four freshmen football players at Archbishop McNicholas High School in Cincinnati were arrested and charged with felonies after a 14-year-old was assaulted in a locker room. Eldred High School in upstate New York canceled its final game because of reports of “widespread and pervasive hazing among members of the football team.”

None of this should come as a surprise. Years ago, sports researchers identified the strong correlation between contact sports and adolescent violence.

For example, in 2007 a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University analyzed data for 6,400 high school males and concluded that, when compared to non-athletes, high school football players were 40 percent more likely to get into a serious fight. Other studies have found a correlation between adolescent contact sports generally and hazing, defined to mean participating in or being subjected to degrading or abusive conduct as a condition for joining a group.

Some of the uglier incidents involved members of the Mepham High School football team in Bellmore, N.Y., who were accused of sodomizing younger team members with a broomsticks and pine cones; the two football coaches and four team members at Prosser Career Academy in Chicago charged with beating an asthmatic 14-year-old boy with a belt; and the two football players at Steubenville High School in Ohio convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl and then posting a video of the incident online.

The violence, together with the 90,000 or more concussions annually among pre-collegiate football players, threatens the future of high school football.

Two academic economists, Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen, came up with a doomsday scenario in which a couple of high school players commit suicide, parents start keeping their kids from joining teams, lawyers bring ever more lawsuits, juries award mega-verdicts to families and skyrocketing liability insurance premiums force more and more high schools to drop the sport.

This is an unfolding tragedy. Victims and their families are scarred for life; the futures of the offenders are permanently blighted; the careers and reputations of the coaches never recover; and even whole communities can suffer. You don’t have to watch “Remember the Titans” or “Friday Night Lights” to understand how high school football creates a sense of community and, therefore, what the loss of a team means, especially in a small town. You just have to have gone to high school.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama convened a youth sports summit at the White House, principally to address youth sports and concussions but not off-field violence.

There may be a technological solution for concussions; but preventing, not just punishing, high school football hazing, bullying and violence is a more intractable — and neglected — problem.

But it’s not unsolvable. As a start, in a 2012 study, educational psychologists at Indiana University in Bloomington and Fort Lewis College in Colorado concluded that the strongest predictor of a player’s bullying “was the perception of whether a football player’s most influential male in his life would approve of the behavior.” These most influential males (MIMs) include his father, brother, coach or a looked-up-to teammate.

Some MIMs understand the importance of expressing disapproval of misconduct as soon as it appears. For example, last year the head football coach at Union High School in Utah, fed up with his players’ behavior, including cutting classes and suspected cyber-bullying, did not wait for it to grow worse. He suspended all 80 players and made them do community service instead of practicing football.

But other MIMs don’t get it, don’t care or actually encourage and even participate in violence by the players. Sports figures and commentators (but not the National Football League until it cleans up its own act), school administrators, parents individually or through PTAs, and psychologists need to start a national dialogue over the standards of conduct and accountability of MIMs both for high school football and other contact sports.

High school football must not go down the drain.