Sport specialization contributes to shrinking high school football rosters in Michigan

WWMT News Channel 3 (Portage, MI)

November 14, 2021

A decade-long decline has plagued high school football in Michigan.

According to a report by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, 32,367 students participated in either 11-player or 8-player football during the 2021 season. That’s compared to 46,359 during the 2007-2008 school year.

MHSAA Communications Director Geoff Kimmerly said the decline was initially attributed, in part, to concussions.

“In the middle of the last decade and first half of this decade especially, there were certainly some concussion fears out there,” Kimmerly said. “But we have done a lot to explain to people that football is safer than its ever been.”

According to the MHSAA’s 11-player football head injury report, only 2.2% of high school football players in Michigan reported head injuries during the 2020-2021 school year.

Athletic officials said school districts are spending money on football teams to add extra protections on the field.

Portage Northern High School said it spends anywhere between $6,000 to $9,000 to refurbish its football equipment.

“We refurbish all football equipment including helmets and shoulder pads every year,” Portage Public Schools Community Relations Manager Michelle Karpinski said. “Helmets must be reconditioned annually and be certified each year for use. Helmets are able to be certified for a maximum life of ten years and after ten years, helmets are automatically not recertified.”

Kurt Twichell said his first season as head football coach at Portage Northern kicked off with a surprise.

“One of the biggest shocks to me was seeing how low the numbers were coming in,” Twichell said. “We went down to just two teams total. We didn’t have enough to support a JV and a freshman team.”

Twichell said more than 12,000 students are enrolled at the Division 2 high school, but the Huskie football team only carried about 35 players on its varsity roster during the 2021 season.

Area coaches said they are seeing more students choose to focus on a single sport, and that is what has hurt high school football teams.

“Lately the number one thing I hear from other coaches is sport specialization,” Twichell said. “The idea that a kid needs to play one sport year-round to be competitive and get to a certain level contributes to that.”

The MHSAA said dual and tri-sport athletes are becoming rarer, especially at bigger schools like Portage Northern.

“A lot of students are are being told early in their career that they need to be focusing on one sport,” Kimmerly said. “That is obviously something that we are working against and explaining to people that it’s not necessarily true. Athletes feel they need to stay in the sport because they think it’s the best way to earn a college scholarship. That isn’t necessarily true either.”

Coaches explained being a dual-sport athlete can be extremely beneficial.

“Multisport athletes tend to be more injury resisted whereas single sport athletes who deal with the repetition of movement and the constant schedule can lead not just injury but to burnout,” Twichell said.

“We believe in the power of multi-sport athlete to not just be competitive, but to be able to adapt in certain situations and be dynamic and fluid when they are on the field or the court.” — Kurt Twichell, Portage Northern head football coach

Not all high schools in Michigan have seen a drop in participation. Some smaller schools saw a spike during the 2021 season.

“Colon is an interesting story,” Kimmerly said. “I would almost call it an outlier that we hope is copied everywhere else.”

Eight-player Division 2 school, Colon has seen its youth Rocket Football League participation spike 50% in 2021 compared to the 2020 season.

The MHSAA believes getting athletes involved in sports when they’re young, teaching them important safety methods from the start, will keep them playing longer.

“It’s getting that interest in the game going and stoking that love for the game,” Kimmerly said. “Someone with young kids will find that in first grade, they have a chance to let them play everything and give their kids options to play sports all year long.”

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