Many reasons why football is in decline in Virginia

Stonewall's Logan Ritchie runs an option play against Strasburg last week. Ritchie loves playing football, saying, "Football's a physical sport; you just got to be willing to make sacrifices to play it. " Rich Cooley/Daily

There’s no question that football across America is on the decline.

According to numbers listed on the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of participants playing football in 2017 dropped by 2 percent with 21,465 fewer players than in 2016. Although it was a smaller decline than it was from 2015 to 2016 (2.5 percent).

In Virginia, Charles City, Manassas Park, and Park View canceled their seasons, with Bruton canceling half of its games this year. There are many reasons for the decline, perhaps one of the biggest being the fear of concussions.

Skyline Athletic Director Bill Cupp said that perhaps the biggest change with concussions is that everyone is more aware of it now than in the past. Cupp said when he played football things were much different.

“There’s a heightened fear of injury or a better understanding of the risk and how much do you want to take that risk,” Cupp said. “When I played we understood far less what we were doing to our bodies. We obviously knew that it wasn’t great but it wasn’t as understood as it is now.”

There has been much attention on concussions due to former National Football League players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, as they get older.

However, many coaches, including Stonewall Jackson coach Pete Lampman, believe the game is as safe as ever and kids and parents should not be afraid to play.

“You got the parents out there worried about concussions, and they’re overblown. To me it’s completely overblown,” Lampman said. “There’s a higher percentage of concussions in girls soccer than there is in football. We teach a better way to tackle. We’ve improved the safety, equipment. Every year they’re making rules and making the game safer.”

Monticello head coach Jeff Lloyd said he believes because of its popularity, football is still the most played sport in the country, that it’s an easy target for people to criticize.

“I think parents have been scared by what they’ve heard with concussions,” Lloyd said. “And I think parents have been misinformed a lot about concussions. You’re not going to get CTE in high school football with one concussion in four years. If a kid has three or four in their high school career, yeah you probably shouldn’t play anymore. I think because of the NFL and its problems parents are no longer watching the NFL. I just think right now our sport is under attack.”

Central standout wide receiver/safety Kyle Clanton said he understands why many might be worried about the safety of players, but for himself, the rewards outweigh the risks.

“I’m used to it,” Clanton said of the hits. “I’ve been doing it for years now. Everything’s just normal for me. I love being outside, working out in the weight room all summer and then coming out for football season. It’s just exciting.”

Stonewall Jackson senior quarterback Logan Ritchie said that he understands if someone doesn’t want to play because of getting an injury, but for him, he’s never given it a second thought.

“You got to be willing to take that risk,” Ritchie said. “You can get hurt in anything you do in life, pretty much. You can walk down the sidewalk and trip and crack your head open. Football’s a physical sport; you just got to be willing to make sacrifices to play it. It takes heart and guts.”

Sherando head coach Bill Hall said that he believes the game is as safe as it has ever been. His son Will is Sherando’s starting tight end.

“I think there’s probably no greater statement about my belief in football other than my son plays football,” Bill Hall said. “And if it was something that I thought was detrimental to him, then he wouldn’t be playing. But I believe in it so much that I believe that a huge key to his success in life is learning the things that football teaches him. Those things are hard to replicate in any other venue.”

There are many other reasons for the decline in football. One of them being that society has changed and many kids don’t want to put in the time it takes to play the game. There are many other options for kids to do.

Lampman said that he believes that video games have played a role in the decline.

“Everybody’s into video games; I really do think that’s a huge part of it,” Lampman said. “When we were playing, you played baseball, football, and basketball. If you didn’t do any of those things, then you probably stayed home all the time. You played one of the three, if not three out of the three. So there weren’t as many options. Now they got ridiculous video games that even I find them entertaining.”

Warren County Athletic Director Ed Dike said that it might sound silly but he believes something as simple as air conditioning has had an effect on participation in football.

“I think air conditioning has a lot to do with it,” Dike said. “Because when I was growing up, we didn’t have air conditioning. So we went out in August for football. It was a little hot, but we had been sitting around in that hotness all along. Now, you get into your car, you flip on your air conditioning. You go into a store, it’s air-conditioned. The school’s air-conditioned. I went to Fork Union Military Academy, we didn’t have air conditioning in any of our rooms. We had a fan. I worked on a farm in the summer at the farmhouse where we lived at – it didn’t have air conditioning. I think a lot of it is acclimation, to be perfectly honest with you.”

Another big reason why kids aren’t playing football as much is specialization in sports. Many athletes are only playing one sport year-round.

Virginia High School League Executive Director Billy Haun said it’s a worrisome problem that he been hearing about not just with boys sports but also girls sports.

“I just talked to an athletic director the other day and the number of kids that used to play both football and basketball is declining,” Haun said. “It used to be that a lot of your football players rolled right into basketball season. But that’s not happening anymore with so many travel teams and AAU basketball and those kind of things going on. I think there’s a lot of kids that are just specializing in that one sport.”

Haun said another factor is enrollment at some of the high schools is down around the state, which obviously is going to affect how many play sports.

While the numbers across the country may be down and teams may be canceling seasons in Virginia, most teams in this area are doing fine.

Cupp said that Skyline’s numbers are down about 30 percent compared to 10 years ago, but they still have around 65-to-70 in varsity and junior varsity combined. Dike said their numbers are about the same.

Strasburg has 38 players on the varsity squad this season, the Rams highest number in years. Strasburg Athletic Director Matt Hiserman said that one thing that has helped is Shenandoah County starting school in early August as opposed to starting after Labor Day.

“Some communities where you don’t start school until after Labor Day still, that’s a whole month that they’ve got to give up of their summer,” Hiserman said. “And I think that’s a really big thing. Starting school as early as we do kind of stinks a little bit because you lose a little bit of that, but our kids are going to be gone for a week and then they start school. So they’re not losing much of their summer for that. So that maybe has helped our fall numbers across the board. Our fall numbers across the board are up.”

One school where the numbers are down is Page County. The Panthers have only 22 players on this year’s team, but Athletic Director Keith Cubbage said the team is playing a full schedule and is confident that they will be fine. The Panthers are already 1-0 on the season.

Cubbage said that the program has struggled for wins the last few years and that hasn’t helped get more kids out.

Stonewall Jackson almost didn’t have a season four years ago. The Generals had only 18 players on the opening day of practice but decided to keep playing. Since then the numbers have gone up despite a 28-game losing streak.

Lampman said he’s been happy with the turnout for the program.

“We’ve got a bigger (junior varsity) team than we’ve had in years,” Lampman said. “The youth leagues here on the southern campus have more kids than they’ve had in the last few years. We dressed out 24 (in the season opener). We had eight out (due to injuries or suspensions). We have 32 players on our roster, that’s pretty good for a school our size.”

While losing may be tough, Ritchie said that there’s a lot more to football than the wins and losses, and he loves playing with his teammates.

“It’s not all about winning; we like having fun,” Ritchie said. “We have a lot of fun at practices and when we’re out with each other. It’s kind of like a second family. We hang out and just go around and do stuff together. That just kind of brings excitement to the season.”