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