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Gains Made by High School Football, Volleyball Could Lead the Comeback of Youth Sports

12 Sep, 2020

By: Michael Popke

While this is typically the time of year the National Federation of State High School Associations releases its annual sports participation survey, listing all sports at the high school level and showing numbers of students and schools enrolled, this year has not been typical.

As a result, for the first time in 50 years, NFHS did not release its survey. What it did do, however, was share the following insights about fall sports that took place in 2019 (which were, obviously unaffected by COVID):

Girls’ volleyball continued its tremendous growth last fall, increasing by 9,751 participants for a total of 462,559. In the past 10 years, the sport has added 60,000 participants and has passed basketball as the No. 2 sport for girls behind track and field.

11-player football, which has been declining in participation for the past three years, according to NFHS, posted its smallest drop to date – just under 2,500 students. (To put that into perspective, the three previous annual drops had been 23,311, 20,540 and 30,829). A four-figure drop, therefore, is a significant improvement.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of high school sports in spring,  participation in interscholastic sports was expected to rebound. Declining numbers in football were particularly noteworthy at the time.  

“There were encouraging reports last fall that football participation numbers were headed in a more positive direction,” writes Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation High, in “The NFHS Voice,”her weekly column on the organization’s website. “Interest in other fall sports continued to be at a high level, and winter sports were experiencing tremendous success.”

Niehoff notes that the smaller decline “suggests to us that parents are appreciative of the risk minimization efforts that have been put in place. Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practice, and every state has established concussion protocols and laws.”

Most likely, next year’s participation survey will be anything but ordinary, as well,” Niehoff adds. “Vermont is playing 7-on-7 football and outdoor volleyball; football is set for winter or spring in 17 states; volleyball and soccer have been pushed into 2021 in a number of states; and spring sports may not finish until late June or early July in other states.”

The federation has published a 16-page document titled “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities,”and has created a map of “2020-21 sports seasons modifications.”As of Sept. 10, 19 states had ruled out playing high school football in 2020.

Meanwhile, the Michigan High School Athletic Association reinstated football on Sept. 3 after an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted restrictions that previously prohibited football.

“Thirty three other states are currently participating in all fall sports, and the MHSAA and its member schools are committed to doing this as safely as possible,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said in a statement, while also emphasizing the important role sports play in this unprecedented time. “We are ready to again provide those experiences to students and communities that have hoped for a return of some normalcy. Given the challenges of online education in many school districts across the state, providing sports and a daily routine may be more important than ever in motivating students and providing a safe outlet for physical activity, competition and socialization.”

On Sept. 9, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced that it will move that state’s football, volleyball and competitive cheer fall seasons to  March 1, 2021 — citing the high-risk nature of those sports in relation to the pandemic. In this regard, it joins the NAIA, which moved its championships, and the NCAA, which is exploring the possibility.

“We’ve spent two days speaking with nearly 500 athletic directors across the state, and it’s clear that administering high-risk fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic presents a significant challenge for our member schools,” Robert Zayas, executive director of the NYSPHSAA, said in a statement. “These are unprecedented times and unfortunately, difficult decisions will have to be made to address this ongoing crisis.”

NYSPHSAA officials note that the revised season for football, volleyball and competitive cheer will be dubbed “Fall Sports Season II.”

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