Youth Sports Uncertainty

High school sports participation in Montana fell for the ninth time in 10 years

By Myers Reece

Recent headlines have foisted a bright light on the issue of dwindling high school athletic participation in Montana, especially in football.

Last week, my high school alma mater, Park High School in Livingston, announced that it’s forfeiting the varsity football season due to low participation. While the school still has enough underclassmen for a junior varsity squad, school officials cited safety risks in sending those players into varsity action.

“We are concerned about the reality of 14-year old boys on the field competing against 18 and 19 year old young men,” the school’s statement said on Sept. 6. “Additionally, between current injuries, inexperience, and the low number of upperclassmen, we are unable to field a competitive varsity team.”

The announcement came a week after an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) was released, showing that high school football participation in Montana has declined sharply by 11 percent since 2016 and overall high school sports participation fell for the ninth time in 10 years.

For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Montana’s decline over the last decade is at odds with the national trend, which had seen overall high school sports participation increase for 29 years straight until the 2018-2019 school year, when it dipped negligibly by less than 1 percent from an all-time high the previous year.

Thus, the report is difficult to parse. Further complicating matters is that youth sports participation among ages 6 to 12 has been declining at the same time high school participation has been increasing in recent years. We may yet see that decline show up in the high school stats in coming years.

One trend, however, is clear as day: Football, while remaining the top participatory sport, has seen three straight years of decline nationwide, even shedding numbers in 2017-2018, the year with the highest overall prep sports participation ever. There is a confluence of reasons, but concerns over injuries, particularly to the brain, are undoubtedly playing a role.

“We recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury,” Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS executive director, wrote.

Still, how do we explain Montana’s defiance of the national figures? Without more research, the forces driving participation declines in Montana sports other than football, including basketball and volleyball, are a matter of speculation.

While I’m discouraged to see my alma mater forfeit an entire season for any sport, and to see the overall decline in participation statewide, I empathize with children and parents needing to prioritize youthful pursuits in a world that is increasingly demanding for an adolescent student. I also understand the concerns over football’s impacts to a kid’s health in light of mounting research.

Yet, I have faith in the future of youth sports, even if they will inescapably look different years from now, particularly football. Evolution, especially in the name of safety, is critical and has defined every sport throughout its existence. Participation in sports such as lacrosse and track have been reliably increasing nationwide, and the energy of youth will continue to find outlets in the form of athletics.

Sports, specifically basketball, were a critical part of my upbringing and high school experience. I remain a sports fan and like keeping up with the local teams and athletes. And I will continue to enjoy doing so, even if my viewing experience, like the playing experience, is a little different.

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