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February 1, 2013

Commonwealth Football Report #9

Reading some cultural tea leaves of late has led me to wonder whether a pillar of American teenage life---high school athletics---will still exist 20 or 30 years from now. With participation levels among high school athletes higher than ever, that may seem like a remote possibility.

But here are some concrete reasons why it might not be so far-fetched:

1. Concussions

An obvious point, but every time we mine new concussion-related data, it seems like what we discover is that the inevitability of concussion-related injuries rises exponentially. In other words, we look for an answer, and that answer is always "It's worse than we thought." Within the next two or three years, I think a major media outlet with a lot of clout will craft a featured story arguing that football should be abolished outright, at least among minors.

If an industry as profitable as professional football is now constantly struggling to address concerns related to the future of the game, how long will it be before lower levels of competition begin to decide it isn't worth it to continue playing? Football is so ingrained in our culture, especially in certain regions, that it will be difficult for any school system to be the first in its state to shut down football. But, once one system is bold enough to set that trend, I believe there will be a domino effect, and other jurisdictions will quickly follow suit.

On top of that, we now know that sports like soccer actually have a higher rate of concussion-related injuries at the high school level than football does. Just as we don't have high school boxing, high school football, and perhaps other sports, will disappear in large measure as a result of growing concern over concussions (see also #3 and #4 below).

2. More federal and state regulation of sports

I mean this in the kindest way possible: We need to remember that most of the people coaching high school sports were education or PE majors who just wanted to teach and coach. I'm not saying there aren't some very intelligent coaches in the mix. There are. But, by and large, these aren't folks who have the same background as college-level compliance officers. More and more, though, these coaches and ADs are being asked to tackle similar issues.

State and local laws or regulations dealing with concussions, home-schooled athletes playing for public schools, contact sport limitations, inning limits for pitchers, and higher GPA requirements for athletes, just to pick five, are among the increasing volume of off-field rules through which coaches must navigate. Liability-shifting "certifications" are the norm now, with coaches being asked to take and pass online tests related to everything from head trauma to proper hydration to state sanctioning body rules.

The federal presence in high school sports is increasing a well. Just this past week, the Department of Education announced new guidelines that will do the following vis a vis disabled students:

"Disabled students who want to play for their school could join traditional teams if officials can make 'reasonable modifications' to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the department is directing the school to create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing to traditional programs."

"Comparable standing" to traditional programs means that sometimes a separate team/program would have to be created solely for disabled students. This new team would be required to get the same "spotlight," budget, and manpower as the existing teams. The DoE insists that this won't be a fundamental change, but activists lauding the measures are already claiming that these rules will do for the disabled what Title IX did for female athletes.

Whether this is a net positive or an excessive step is a value judgment, but there's no question that the application and enforcement of the new guidelines will certainly increase the costs associated with running an athletic program, whether due to accommodation expenses, litigation, or both.

Speaking of litigation . . .

3. Our society is ridiculously litigious

I wrote my Law Review casenote on the history and (then-)future of Title IX. What's interesting to note about Title IX is that the legislators who passed it fully believed that it wouldn't even apply to athletics. All it took was a couple of court decisions, and we have the comprehensive regulatory regime we know today.

So, all of the above-referenced disability guidelines will be subject to heavy scrutiny by our court system in the years to come. Defining "comparable standing" and "reasonable modifications" alone will potentially be a huge headache. Furthermore, while Title IX advocates can point to the benefits that Title IX has brought for half the population, an analogous disability-related measure benefits a much smaller portion of the student body, while, at the same time, apparently requiring "comparable" resources to be allocated to the parallel teams to match the traditional ones.

In short, schools face potentially increasing a given program's budget by 50% in order to comply with federal law that applies only to a handful of students. Advocates will say this is worth it, and some places will embrace the new set-up, but cash-strapped school systems may opt instead to abandon athletics altogether to avoid choosing between spending money they don't have or violating federal law.

The problem goes deeper than that, however. The concussion issue will inevitably lead to a number of civil suits against school systems that continue to play football (and possibly other sports) over the next decade. All it would take would be one unfavorable ruling for schools to get very, very cautious. That leads me to my next point.

4. We now live in a "better safe than sorry" society

Imagine traveling back in time and explaining to someone in 1960 that everyone who flies on a commercial plane in the United States must submit to a type of full-body x-ray, at a minimum, with the possibility of a pat-down chaser. The reason? Because three planes were hijacked over a decade ago.

I suspect that most in 1960, and many in 2013, would say that that's too big an encroachment or inconvenience given the tiny, tiny risk of something like 9/11 happening again in the same fashion, especially when coupled with other measures (e.g. armed air marshals on flights, TSA databases, no-fly lists, etc).

The retort from the other side would be "better safe than sorry."

This ties into the other points. Perhaps it's better to avoid the huge benefits and life lessons of football if playing the sport means a risk of getting a concussion. And maybe a school system would be better off dumping football rather than opening itself up to potential lawsuits and skyrocketing insurance costs.

Sure, sports are a major part of a lot of kids' lives growing up, but there's always a risk of injury, whether physical or emotional. For school systems, athletic competitions are an ever-growing bundle of potential liability concerns. Why take the risk? After all-safety first, right? And that's to say nothing of the fact that it's common knowledge that the world of sports (especially football) is the breeding ground for the most reprehensible human known to the world: The bully.
Or, at least that's how a certain line of thinking goes.

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So, what happens next? I think football begins to disappear within five years, with some whole states' public school systems dumping it within ten. Within fifteen years, only a few Southern states (and maybe Pennsylvania and Ohio) will be holdouts with widespread football programs in public schools.

With football---the cash cow---gone, it will be easier to make a case for dumping other sports for budgetary reasons. But I don't even think that will be what dooms high school sports once king football is out of the picture.

We're already seeing the rapid rise of private entities taking the place of scholastic sports. Travel baseball and softball are booming, and travel soccer is bigger than scholastic soccer in many places. Club volleyball and lacrosse are noteworthy. Tennis and golf have always had significant opportunities wholly unconnected to school sports. Wrestling will become even more of a niche sport, or just disappear altogether. And, at the top of the heap, is the sometimes-shady world of AAU basketball, which sometimes holds more sway over players than their own high school coaches do.

The only major missing piece of the puzzle is a private organization for youth football targeting kids over the age of 14. It's hard to see a powerful football entity cropping up over the next decade beneath the looming specter of the concussion crisis. That's why I think the future will be seven-on-seven football organizations, which are already starting to look a bit like an embryonic version of AAU basketball.

As hard as it is to believe (and harder still just a few short years ago), I think high school sports' days are numbered. We'll reach a moment where some charismatic politician will ultimately make the point that a school's mission is an academic one, and that athletics are basically neither here nor there.

This is the same argument that comes up anytime a school system faces budget cuts. This time, however, a combination of risk-aversion, fear of lawsuits, and costly and frustrating regulation will be enough to give that argument traction in locales all across the country.

There was a time in this nation's history when sports weren't a commonplace part of high school athletics. In fact, most sports outside of the "big four" of football, basketball, track, and baseball didn't even appear until the 1970s. We now live in an era when very few people alive can remember a time when high schools didn't offer a dozen or more sports.

Sixty years from now, I think only a few people will be able to remember a time when the connection between high schools and sports teams was part of our cultural makeup.

This article originally appeared on Tom's personal blog/website, The Axis of Ego, which may be found here.


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