Decline of Pop Warner football doesn't bode well for NFL

This is how it starts. The shrinkage of football in this country, an erosion that will affect the game in high school, then college, and ultimately -- yes -- the NFL. It starts with a report that participation in Pop Warner football has declined nearly 10 percent in the last three years, which coincides with the ugliest, scariest three-year news cycle in the sport's recent history.

So really, that first sentence wasn't quite correct. This isn't how it starts. Not with that Outside the Lines report on Wednesday night about plummeting Pop Warner participation.

It started years ago, when former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain, making sure doctors could discover the damage done to him on the football field. That was February 2011. Six months later former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling sued the league, saying the NFL conspired to make a "concerted effort of deception and denial" about the effects concussions were having on players. Thousands of retired NFL players followed Easterling's lead and sued the league, too. In May 2012 beloved Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide with a shot to the chest, leaving unsaid that he wanted people to study how much his battered brain had betrayed him.

That's when it started. Or maybe it started earlier than that, back in November 2006 when ex-Eagles safety Andre Waters killed himself with a gunshot to the head and a former Harvard player, Christopher Nowinski, asked Waters' family for permission to study his brain. Nowinski sent tissue to a doctor who determined that football had damaged Waters' brain, which led to Waters' depression, which concluded with his suicide.

A few months later former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson told the New York Times about his misery in retirement, blaming his memory loss and addictions on concussions suffered with the Patriots, including the time in 2002 when he suffered two in a week and was encouraged to play a few days later by coach Bill Belichick, against the advice of a trainer.

The timeline goes from there, with more depressing milestones along the way, until this story exploded in February 2011 with Duerson's suicide note to his family, asking that his brain be studied.

Parents were paying attention. The Pop Warner numbers don't lie -- even if the Pop Warner website, apparently, does. On its website Thursday, the day after the Outside the Lines report that its participation had dropped nearly 10 percent from 2010-12, Pop Warner has this sentence on its football page:

Over 250,000 youths participated in Pop Warner-sanctioned football programs in 2010, and those numbers are continuing to grow.

Well, yes. If by "grow" the website meant "shrink." According to Outside the Lines, and these numbers were not disputed by Pop Warner officials, participation in Pop Warner football -- far and away the county's most popular youth football system -- had shrunk to a little more than 225,000 in 2012, the largest two-year drop since the organization started tracking those figures decades ago.

Pop Warner officials told ESPN that its decreasing numbers are a function of specialization, with more and more kids focusing on one sport, but that's misinformation for two reasons: One, specialization started a long time before in 2010. Two, the kids that are choosing one sport? They're not making that one sport football as often as they used to.

To its credit, Pop Warner has made a concussion specialist, neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, its medical director. And to Bailes' credit, he did tell Outside the Lines that parental concern about head injuries is "the No. 1 cause" for the nearly 10 percent drop in Pop Warner players since 2010.

The same decline is happening to high school football, by the way. Nationally, the number of players is falling. Google participation rates for any state, and you'll see them dropping across the board. It's down nearly 5 percent since 2007 in California. It's down 10.5 percent since 2007 in Michigan. Down 3.5 percent in one year alone, from 2011 to 2012, in Maryland. And in the Vermont Principals Association, the number of schools offering a football team dropped from 33 schools in 2006 to 26 schools in 2012. Student population in Vermont is down 13 percent since 2006, but football participation had shrunk by nearly 33 percent.

What does it mean? You know what it means. Change "these jobs" to "football," and it's like Bruce Springsteen says in My Hometown:

"Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back."

You can argue whether or not this should happen, but that's not what I'm doing here. Should football go away? I don't know. That's the best I can say for the most popular sport in America: I don't know if it should go away. Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney and Titans safety Bernard Pollard have said they expect football to be gone within the next 30 years.

Me, I'm torn. The sport does wonders for kids as far as exercise and teaching the principals of teamwork, effort, trust. It creates academic opportunities for teens who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford college, some of whom might not finish high school without the allure of football. It creates jobs for gobs of people around the country, not just players, but all those folks who work for college and NFL teams and who tend to stadiums and sell tickets and vend food and drinks. And on and on.

If football goes away, it would financially hurt a lot of people.

If football stays, it will continue to physically hurt a lot of people.

Financially, there are other options. As far as our brains go, there is no Plan B. That's why the report on Pop Warner participation, combined with the dropping number of high school football players, is so remarkable. More than ever, parents are saying no to football. In cities across Vermont, the sport isn't even offered anymore.

One day -- maybe not in your lifetime, but maybe so -- the sport won't be offered in my hometown. Or yours. Because this sport is going, boys, and it ain't coming back.

Our Latest Stories