MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WHILE SPORT PARTICIPATION IS INCREASING OVERALL, FOOTBALL IS FALLING
Sports participation has increased overall for the 29th consecutive year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHS).
Meanwhile, football participation, specifically, continues to dwindle.
The downward trend is not as drastic in the state of Tennessee as it is nationally, but the last three years have shown a steady decline. Despite this, there are more than a handful of schools throughout the Mid-South that are bucking the trend.
When we started asking questions, we uncovered why some communities see football as not just a game, but a vision for a brighter future.
FEWER TEENS ARE HITTING THE GRIDIRON
The number of high school football players is down 6.5 percent from its peak of 1,110,527 in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the NFSHS. In the 2017-2018 school year, there were only 1,039,079 players.
FOX13 Investigates crunched the numbers. As many teams around the Mid-South have also seen participation fall, the data paints a different picture on more than a handful of schools. That includes Whitehaven High.
Scroll to the bottom of this story for state-by-state data.
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A SPORT AND “A MEANS TO AN END”
“If we can use football to help us win at life, I think that’s a greater gift. A greater gift we can give these young men,” Coach Rodney Saulsberry said. “That’s one thing we’re really excited about. Giving kids the chance to change their lives through the game of football.”
FOX13 Investigative Reporter Leah Jordan asked Saulsberry why his school looked different than the majority.
“Using football as a means to an end. It’s a way to, in conjunction with academics, if you can play athletics, it’s a way to finance your education,” Saulsberry said.
Saulsberry said he has sent more than 200 guys on to play football at the college level – giving them an opportunity to attend college. He said many of his players probably wouldn’t have without the sport.
“You can go anywhere from [Whitehaven High School]. And the testament is in that we’ve had kids to go to school. One currently playing at UCLA. One at Alabama. We have one going to Ohio State this year. You can reach and attain your goals by going to school here,” Saulsberry said.
Jordan’s original interview at Whitehaven was solely to interview Saulsberry. After hearing about the young men that Saulsberry has coached and sent to college through football, she asked Saulsberry if she could potentially interview one of them.
Saulsberry racked his brain for a minute, sifting through all the different successful, young men who she could speak with. That’s when he got up, walked to the lunchroom, and pulled Tyler Hunter.
A NEW CHAPTER FOR A SENIOR STUDENT
“Football has placed a certain mentality for me in the classroom, as well. I attack everything head-on in football, I want to go ahead and get it right now. That’s the same way in the classroom,” Hunter said.
In mere weeks, Hunter will graduate from Whitehaven High. He plans to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta beginning in August 2019.
“I’ll be long snapping playing linebacker,” Hunter explained. “I plan on majoring in physics with a minor in mathematics,” he said.
Hunter will be attending Morehouse on a full-ride scholarship, but he said his future would look a lot different if it weren’t for the game.
“Morehouse is close to $45,000 a year. And I don’t come from a very rich family like that,” he said.
Hunter said no matter which direction guys on the team see their future going in, Saulsberry does a good job of strategically marketing them.
“I think Coach Saulsberry has done a great job of marketing all the players here at Whitehaven, and beyond just the football field,” Hunter explained. “I, for one, am a pretty academic guy. I got a 30 on the ACT. [Saulsberry] does a great job of marketing that to very academic-driven schools,” he said.
WE KNOW WHY SOME SCHOOLS’ FOOTBALL PROGRAMS ARE THRIVING. WHY ARE MOST DECLINING?
FOX13 Investigates went to the University of Memphis for answers. Jordan sat down with an Assistant Professor of Sport and Leisure Management – Dr. Rhema Fuller studies the intersection of sport within society.
Fuller said NFL viewership is down, so if people aren’t watching and kids aren’t watching, they might not be getting involved in football at a younger age. He also suggested the possibility of market saturation as a sport.
“During the football season it’s on Sundays, Mondays, you’ll usually get a break on Tuesdays, maybe a game Wednesday, but definitely Thursday, Friday, and Saturday,” Fuller said.
He said participation fees are becoming more and more expensive, which could be a deterrent as well.
According to a March 2019 study by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Michigan, the pay-to participate trend does have an impact on school activities.
Their poll reports that 1 in 6 students (18%) at both the middle and high school level are not participating in any school activities for the 2018-19 school year. The income gap persists, as students from households earning less than $100,000 have twice the level of non-participation as their peers from wealthier households.
Fuller said another explanation could be a simple population decrease.
“I know there are some school districts and schools, just because of their populations, have transitioned from playing 11-man football to 8 and 9,” he said.
Fuller added that, in addition to these factors, the “lion’s share” of the blame can likely be attributed to concussion fears.
“When you take everything into consideration: the research on concussions; the sport specialization; kids getting involved in one sport and sticking with that; population trends; smaller households; parents having kids at older ages,” he said. “It’s kind of the perfect storm of factors and combinations. So, no, I don’t think I’m surprised by the numbers,” Fuller said.
BIG DREAMS, SMALL ODDS
According to several studies conducted by the NCAA, just 6.5 percent of high school football players will play in college. Only 1.6 percent of college players get drafted by the NFL.
Fuller said in some communities, young men are committed to making it to the top – despite the odds.
“I’d be interested to look at youth in African American communities. Football and basketball in particular are seen as a primary vehicle for upward social mobility,” Fuller said.
While there’s no definitive answer, this is one potential explanation for the rise in football enrollment at schools like Whitehaven High, where football isn’t just a game. Rather, it’s a symbol of hope and opportunity.
“We’re intentional about helping kids move to the next level and use this game as a means to an end, and as a vehicle to open doors for the future,” Saulsberry said.
Below is a snapshot of the last 10 years in terms of number of high school football players in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee:
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