With Super Bowl Looming, New Study: Youth Football Participation Down 29% Since 2008

“Football as mass spectacle has never been bigger.”   But youth participation is down 29% since 2008.  – ESPN Outside the Lines.

Christopher Cocca

American football, (that is to say, football), is a fascinating game.  Its history is complex and nuanced.  Like all the major professional sports, it emerged from somewhere in our collective memory, developed through amateur associations of working-class athletic clubs, became an outlet for the ambitions and frustrations of American male adolescence and is now one of the biggest industries in the world.

Even if you prefer baseball or hockey or basketball as products, hobbies, or metaphors, even if you know or care nothing about the game, you’d likely grant that much of its attraction among the faithful is visceral.   My playing experience starts and ends on the playground and in the backyard, with Nerf and, later, synthetic pigskin.  I don’t have a shared locker-room history, I didn’t play the organized game as a child, and I’ve always cared much for more baseball, likely for narrative and immigrant reasons, also visceral.

In the 80s and 90s, we had no way of knowing, as children, what CTE was or that some of our favorite players (Jim McMahon, Junior Seau) would suffer or die from it.  Our parents had no way of knowing that it existed, that playing the full-contact game as young boys even in the best of organized settings could damage our brains and limit our cognitive skills, or that if we played through our teens, that damage could increase our risk of suicide.

But we all know differently now.  I’ve argued before that game’s continued success, especially at the college level (the biggest piece of ESPN’s revenue, and thus a huge piece of Disney’s) requires that our kids keep playing and that the NCAA’s and NFL’s media partners keep mum about the true risks that have evolved alongside bigger bodies and harder hits.

Now, between Super Bowl Media Day and Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reports on a new study from Boston University claiming that “former NFL players who played tackle football as young children were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults.” I’m not a neuroscientist or a youth football booster, but people from both camps weigh in here.

Interestingly, Dr. Robert Stern, lead author of the study, says:

“To allow your child to be subjecting themselves to repetitive head injury at a very early age when they could be doing the sport a different way and minimizing their chances [of brain injury], to me, is just insane,” he said. “It’s wrong. We should not be allowing this to happen.

“Tom Brady didn’t play football until high school. He picked up the game pretty quickly.”

Why didn’t Brady play youth football?  His dad, citing health concerns, forbade the game until Brady’s freshman year.

4 thoughts on “With Super Bowl Looming, New Study: Youth Football Participation Down 29% Since 2008”

  1. It’s definitely concussions. I just got an email from my youth sports soccer coaching group indicating that 17-20% of kids are dropping out of youth sports by age 13 and enrollment is getting lower. I think there is also something to be said for the fact that kids just aren’t as active as they were in the past.


    1. Right, or are more active in other things. Well, it’s hard to be “active” in a video game, but you know what I mean. Also, I think martial arts enrollments must be growing (this is just an anecdotal observation). There are so many choices now, including things like science camps and drama camps and day camps and swim lessons and everything else. But I think you’re right: as far as football is concerned, the concussions and related damage have become a huge deterrent. When Darth Roger pushed for concussion laws for youth leagues a few years ago, it wasn’t just good PR. Even it was move out of sincere concern for human welfare, it’s not hard to imagine it as a way of defending the farm system. Even though guys like Brady didn’t start playing the organized contact game until high school.


  2. Exactly, there’s nothing quite as scary as permenant brain damage to scare parents out of sign ups. I polled a couple people at work and these all agreed, they don’t see their kids getting athletic scholarships, so why risk the chance of losing academic scholarship by “wasting time” with sports. I think that’s a bit short sighted. Most players aren’t injured and sports is a great way to add to different skills that prepare youth for the workforce; teamwork, hard work, practice, sportsmanship, rules, coping with losses, strategy, winning, competitiveness, knowing that not everyone gets to be on first string, goals, celebration for accomplishment – these can be found in other pursuits – but there isn’t anything quite like sports to create opportunities to experience them simultaneously.


    1. Great point. Sports developed, and are popular, for a reason. I do agree that dropping sports because there’s no scholarship opportunity is not a great way to think about it. There’s satisfaction to be had, even if you don’t win a championship. And even if you’re going to a D3 college, they still like to see actives, including sports, on your resume. Key Club, debate team, student government, volunteering…all really important kids of activities, and not better or worse than sports…add a sport to that mix, and nothing is lost. That said, I can’t see letting kids play contact football before a more advanced age in the current climate and with what seems to be an ongoing and worsening story.


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