In the place where Friday night lights shine brightest and solidify even the tiniest of communities, the national decline in high-school football has finally hit home.
New figures out Friday show participation numbers dropping all across the country, including in Texas, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
About 1.1 million players were participating in high-school football in the U.S. in the 2009-2010 academic year, but that number has fallen 7 percent. The loss has accelerated in the past two years, according to NBC News, with participation falling in 40 states during the school year ending in spring 2018.
In Texas specifically, the total number of students playing high-school football fell 2 percent from its peak during the 2010-2011 academic year.
And it’s easy to see why.
Reports about the catastrophic toll of concussions on football players of all ages have been making national headlines. Last July, The New York Times reported on research that found that out of 111 NFL players’ brains studied, 110 of them had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head. Those brains belonged to players who died between the ages of 23 and 89, who had played every position on the field, from quarterbacks to punters.
Among those now fighting CTE are some of the biggest names in Texas football lore: Dallas Cowboys legend Tony Dorsett, the Hall of Fame running back, is one of the many retired pros who have gone public about fighting CTE. He was diagnosed in 2013. Symptoms can show up years after a person stopped playing football, and it can result in confusion, memory loss, depression, and dementia.
Fellow Cowboy and Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, who retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 2004, has said he’d be “naïve to think nothing will ever happen to me” after watching so many of his friends suffer from the disease.
“I carried the ball more than anybody in the history of the game,” Smith said. “So why wouldn’t I be concerned when I see a guy like Earl Campbell, whose body is starting to decay on him, and I see a guy like Tony Dorsett that says he’s had some mental issues as well, and I see a guy like Jim McMahon, who I’ve played golf with and I know that are having some issues? And many, many other players — people that I know personally.”
Even the NFL’s top safety official, Jeff Miller, has acknowledged a link between football and the disease. In April, another study showed that professional players who played tackle football as children suffered from CTE symptoms more than a decade earlier in their lives, including “cognitive impairment and mood swings,” Time magazine reported. (Kid soccer players, for what it’s worth, aren’t immune to this problem either.)
But it’s not just CTE that’s threatening young players.
Some of the most shocking reports of sexual abuse in recent years—out of so many in the #MeToo era—have taken place in high-school football locker rooms.
Last fall in Tennessee, five football players were accused of trying to rape a 15-year-old teammate with a metal mop handle in the school’s fieldhouse. A few months earlier, in Texas, varsity players from the football and basketball teams in the small town of La Vernia were accused of sodomizing younger teammates with baseball bats, carbon-dioxide tanks, and flashlights. In Arizona, four football players who were allegedly assaulted by their teammates had the crimes posted on social media for all to see.
Similar cases have been reported in Alaska and Alabama and Oregon and New Jersey and in other states across the country, where boys who showed up to play a once-beloved sport have been assaulted, ignored, and victimized.
Of course, football is still the No. 1 most-watched televised sport in America, and, in some states, including Louisiana, the number of kids participating is still increasing, NBC News reports.
And many former players, like 52-year-old Daryl Johnston, who won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys and now works as a broadcaster, insist players are far more protected now than ever.
"Football has never been safer than it is right now,” he told NBC. “It's so much safer than when I played. The equipment is better, the rules are better."
Even Emmitt Smith—despite his concerns—lets his son play the game.
“I think every man makes personal sacrifices in order to play the game of football,” he said.