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High school football teams dwindle due to head injury concerns

High school activity programs in Rhode Island and nearby states may experience decreased participation in football. For example, a math teacher and coach in Metuchen, New Jersey uses a beginning-of-the-year survey to identify students who are not playing sports and actively attempts to recruit them to his football team. A dramatic statewide decline in active partaking in high school football programs over two consecutive years has driven him to these drastic measures. For the first time in nine decades, his team forfeited a recent game due to a lack of sufficient players to make up an entire squad, and according to coaches and administrators, growing concern over head injuries is the primary reason for dwindling student involvement in this particular activity.

A researcher who has been studying declining participation in the sport finds the situation in New Jersey to be consistent with a growing trend nationwide. His research identifies two significant events that have correlated with the most dramatic drops in high school football involvement across the United States. The most recent of these drops was in 2015, coinciding with the release of the movie "Concussion," which criticized the National Football League for allegedly putting its profits ahead of players' welfare. An earlier drop occurred in 2012 following the suicide of a Hall of Famer for whom repeated blows to the head contributed to a degenerative brain disorder. 

Statewide administrators and coaches identify fear of head injuries as only one factor contributing to the decline in football participation, citing the year-round demands made of players, changing town demographics and students' increasing interests in other sports, such as basketball or soccer, as other potential causatives. Nevertheless, of all New Jersey high school sports programs, football saw the greatest decrease in student involvement. 

Despite drawing only 1.03 million participants nationwide in 2017, compared to a record high of 1.14 million in 2009, football nevertheless remains the most popular sport in the nation for boys between the ages of 14 to 17. 

Recognizing the concern over head injuries as valid, high school football programs have made some efforts toward making the sport safer for students to participate in. These efforts involve using different material in helmet construction to reduce the risk of head injuries and modified coaching techniques that encourage less hitting in practice. Nevertheless, students who choose to play football assume a risk of injury every time they step out onto the field, and parents of students who have sustained head injuries on the gridiron may wish to consult an attorney.

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