Fewer students are coming out for football in many County public schools due to a changing population that often prefers soccer, the need for many students to have jobs after school — and the increasing fear of concussions that may result in lifelong medical problems.
While many of the coaches who spoke with the Sentinel agreed that blows to the head can be dangerous, they all stressed how much safer football is now as compared with when they played the game.
At Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, participation in football is “way down. The last three years, the numbers have shrunk significantly,” said Seneca Valley head coach Fred Kim.
He blamed decreased enrollment at the high school as well as what he termed “the war against football” in the news and on social media.
Kim and several other coaches wondered why parents aren’t pulling their children out of ice hockey, soccer and cheerleading in increasing numbers when students also can receive concussions in those activities.
Football helmets are made differently now, and while they won’t stop all injuries, they can decrease the number and severity of head injuries, several coaches pointed out. The number of injuries also has been reduced now that coaches are teaching their players how to tackle without using their heads.
And as one coach pointed out, a 150-pound high school student tackling another 150-pound youth is far different than a 300-plus pound professional football player, who has been building up his muscles for years, tackling another, equally-powerful, 300-pound player.
“Football is a great sport for young men,” Kim said. “It’s sad. It’s going to be one of those dying sports. I can totally see it shrinking or dying” or ending up as touch football only, he said.
Many of the professional athletes in the news who have suffered permanent head injuries or have been found to have had the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy played the sport at a high level for at least 10 years and often started their careers before the new, safer procedures were enacted.
Traumatic brain injury contributes to about 30 percent of all injuries that result in death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, in the list of causes, football injuries are not specifically listed by the CDC. Falls, injuries from a blunt instrument and motor vehicle accidents are the leading causes.
In 2012, the CDC said that some 330,000 children, ages 19 and younger, were treated for sports and recreation-related injuries. From 2001 to 2012, the rate of visits to the emergency ward for sports and recreation-related injuries that included a diagnosis of concussion or traumatic brain injury more than doubled among those same age groups.
Effects of traumatic brain injury, which can last for several days or the person’s whole life, include impaired thinking, memory, movement, vision and hearing. It can also cause personality changes and depression, according to the CDC.
Fifty-two players came out for football this season at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, compared to 70 to 80 boys that tried out in previous years, said B-CC head coach Christian Pope.
“We have more than a few pulled by their parents due to concussions and injuries,” Pope said, adding that his school also lost some players to nearby private schools.
Head coach Robert Plante of Clarksburg High School also had fewer students turn out this season. Only 42 students came out, of which nine or 10 are first-year players, he said.
“The concussions are taking a toll. From what I understand, it’s not just Clarksburg; it’s countywide.”
Plante has walked the halls, reaching out to students who he thought looked like they could play football, only to be told that their mothers don’t want them to play, he said.
“Football is a combat sport. It’s a tough demanding sport,” he said, but he questioned why only football is being singled out.
Coaches “always want to err on the side of safety, but there’s a risk to everything,” Plante said. He hopes people realize the benefits of playing football. The young men learn mental and physical discipline, the ability to work with others and how to be a good teammate, he said.
“The true grit we want from our players will help them through life,” Plante said.
Head coach Kreg Kephart said 35 players turned out for varsity, and about 45 came out for junior varsity at Gaithersburg High School. “Our numbers are down.”
All the news as well as the 2015 movie “Concussion” have “freaked a lot of people out,” Kephart said.
The movie featured Will Smith as real life forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Amalu, who fought against the National Football League trying to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. Amalu was interviewed about his research and interactions with the NFL in the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary and subsequent book “League of Denial.”
However, Kephart stressed, football “is no less safe” than other contact sports. “There’s just heightened awareness.”
If anything, football might be safer than many sports, because players are not allowed back on the field if they suffer a concussion. Also, he said, “We are taking the head out of the game. We are emphasizing taking the head out of the game.”
Kephart noted, “If the game is played correctly, and the people are equipped properly and the game is officiated properly, it’s as safe as it’s ever been.”
Not all schools are bearing the brunt of the head-to-head contact.
At Richard Montgomery High School, “we actually have seen rising numbers over our five years here. We had 70-75 combined” varsity and junior varsity players in 2013, “and now we have 120 combined players,” said head coach Joshua Klotz.
“We have not experienced any parent pulling a player due to concussion fears,” he said.
“At Blair High School in Silver Spring, “Our numbers are at a high,” said head coach Andrew Field. This year, his fifth one coaching, 61 boys came out for varsity and 32 for junior varsity.
Impacts from tackles “are not nearly at the level of the NFL,” he said, referring to the National Football League.
Injuries happen, but “so do shark bites and getting hit by lightning.”