The Washington Post
For decades, few things have united America as consistently and completely as football — the autumnal obsession of small-town Friday nights, the ritualistic centerpiece of college-town Saturdays, the communal Sunday religion of a staggering percentage of the populace. In American culture, the game stands virtually alone in the way its appeal cuts across demographic lines.
But when it comes to actually playing tackle football — and risking the physical toll of a sport linked to brain damage — there are wide divisions marked by politics, economics and race, an examination by The Washington Post found. And as the sport grapples with the steep overall decline in participation among young people, some of those divisions appear to be getting wider, The Post found, with football’s risks continuing to be borne by boys in places that tend to be poorer and more conservative — a revelation with disturbing implications for the future of the sport.
To examine the way the demographics of football are changing, The Post analyzed decades of high school and college sports participation data and state-by-state demographic trends. The Post also conducted a nationwide survey, asking the same questions as a 2012 survey about attitudes toward kids’ participation in the sport, and interviewed dozens of young people, parents, coaches, administrators and experts across the country.
While participation is falling almost everywhere, The Post found, boys in the most conservative, poorest states continue to play high school tackle football at higher rates than those in wealthier and more politically liberal areas. The politicization of the concussion crisis is forging deeper divisions between those who support youth football and those who don’t. And while precise data about football’s racial makeup is hard to come by, the demographics appear to be gradually shifting. Among kids and teens, White and Black males are playing tackle football at declining rates, while Hispanic boys increasingly take up the sport. In college, the proportion of White players is declining, and that of Black players rising, at faster rates than national demographic changes.
High-schoolers in states that voted for former president Donald Trump in 2020 played football last year at a rate roughly 1.5 times as high as those in states that went for President Biden, The Post found — a significant divide that also existed a decade ago. But poll results revealed that liberals are increasingly more likely to discourage children from playing football, while conservatives are just about as likely to recommend the sport now as in 2012.
“There seems to be a very disturbing possibility,” said Andrew M. Lindner, associate professor of sociology at Skidmore College who has studied the demographics of football participation, “that who your dad voted for [in the presidential election] could influence your risk for a very serious [football-related] ailment or injury.”
The NFL, which is among the most influential cultural institutions in the United States, has long viewed the slow decline in high school participation rates — beginning in 2006 and accelerating amid the avalanche of negative storylines in the 2010s regarding traumatic brain injuries — as an existential threat. The league has targeted it with a series of responses, most notably an embrace of flag football as an alternate pathway, geared toward coaxing families back into the game.
“Where we were fighting the negative health and safety narratives seven, eight years ago, we were saying, ‘Okay, well, let’s evolve,’ ” said Roman Oben, an offensive tackle for 12 seasons in the NFL, who now serves as the league’s vice president for football development. “… It’s okay to admit that we had to evolve.”
The league’s efforts have helped: More kids ages 6 to 12 now play flag football than tackle, and flag participation has remained stable. But the introduction of a safer alternative also has sown divisions, with flag football more frequently being adopted in wealthier communities, according to interviews with football organizers and experts around the country. It is a dynamic the NFL and USA Football have tried to address by focusing efforts to expand access to flag in underserved areas.
Nationally, football remains the most popular boys’ high school sport in the country by a wide margin. And in September, just as this season was kicking off, an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) brought a welcomed bit of news for football: Participation across American high schools in 2022 had rebounded from its drop amid the pandemic, growing by about 5 percent since 2021 and roughly matching the participation rate of 2018, the most recent year the NFHS collected data before the pandemic. Several other popular boys’ sports — including soccer, brball, basketball and outdoor track and field — saw slight drops in participation rate from 2018-19 to 2022-23.
But viewed from a wider lens, high school football is in steep, steady decline. Participation has fallen 17 percent since 2006, when more than 1.1 million boys played the sport, a larger decline than any of the other top 10 most popular boys’ sports. Data in the sprawling and unregulated youth sports industry is less reliable, but regular participation in tackle football among kids ages 6 to 12 fell 13 percent from 2019 to 2022, according to annual survey data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).
The Post analyzed high school football participation since 2013, around the start of the concussion crisis. It fell in nearly every state.
Only two states showed notable increases — Mississippi, up 20 percent, and Alabama, up 18 percent.
In another three states — New Hampshire, Louisiana and Ohio — participation is roughly where it was a decade ago. In every other state, it’s dropped.
Even Texas, often considered the heart of American high school football, has had a 12 percent decline in participation since 2013.
Despite the drop, Texas still has the fourth-highest football participation rate compared with its public high school enrollment, behind only Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
Among these states where football continues to thrive, the common threads are geography, politics and socioeconomics. The South has held onto the game more than any other region.
Twenty-three states in 2022 had high school football participation that exceeded the nation’s overall rate.
Nineteen of those states went for Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
And all but two had median household incomes that were lower than the nation’s mark as a whole, according to the American Community Survey.
So instead of asking how many kids are playing, the bigger question for the sport in 2023, and in the future, is who is playing.
“Kids who are disadvantaged will say, ‘I’ll deal with that [CTE] issue if and when it ever comes,’ ” said Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants who later became one of the most vocal critics of the NFL’s response to brain injuries. “Kids are thinking, ‘If I can get that big contract, my family will be set for generations, so I’m willing to assume the risk.’ … They see the bling, the cars, the contracts being handed out. There’s no way you can compete against that. These kids are coming from next to nothing.”
In much of Mississippi, which has the highest poverty rate and highest rate of high school tackle football participation in the country, the risk-reward calculus remains tilted heavily in favor of playing. According to the NFL, the state has the fourth-most players in the league this season on a per capita basis, behind Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama.
“We go hard because, I mean, a lot of us come from nothing,” said Jermar McCarter, middle linebacker for Starkville (Miss.) High. “We don’t like to see our parents struggling.”
Asked about the injury factor, McCarter’s teammate, quarterback Trey Petty said, “At a young age, we don’t really care about injuries. If injuries come about, it come about. We worry about it when it come. But in the moment, we don’t worry about playing football. We’re having fun.”
That sentiment — football is still a worthwhile endeavor, despite its risks — continues to prevail with a majority of Americans.
In separate polls conducted in 2012 and this year, The Post asked respondents whether they would recommend children play youth or high school football (without specifying tackle or flag). Overall, the numbers barely budged, with those encouraging it falling from 67 percent in 2012 to 64 percent this year.
But the divide between specific demographic groups changed far more dramatically. This year, for example, 75 percent of Americans who identified as conservatives said they would recommend football to kids, but a much smaller 44 percent of liberals did. That gap represented a striking change from the 2012 poll, when the margin was only 70 percent to 63 percent. The gap between White conservatives (72 percent) and White liberals (36 percent) in 2023 was even wider, much larger than a 67 percent-57 percent gap in 2012.
The demographics of football, in fact, reveal just as much about America as they do about the current state and the future of its national obsession.
Football’s brain injury crisis was not a single event. It arrived through a slow buildup of horrific news, about concussions and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which kept the story in the national consciousness.
Among the more consequential developments: the 2012 suicide of former star linebacker Junior Seau; the admission by then-President Barack Obama in 2013 that, if he had sons, he would be hesitant to let them play football; and especially the Christmas Day 2015 release of the blockbuster movie, “Concussion.” Even in places where scientific evidence didn’t move the needle, the sight of Will Smith on the big screen, portraying the scientist widely credited with discovering CTE in the brains of deceased NFL players, certainly did.
“It was the movie,” said Jay Williams, vice president of the Abilene (Tex.) Cowboys youth football program. “Literally the year after that movie came out, our numbers fell in half, easily. Even today, you talk to parents … and they all say, ‘I don’t know if I want my son to play.’ ”
At various times, there was worry both inside and outside the sport about whether football could survive a crisis that stemmed from its very essence: the constant hitting and tackling taking place on every play. And those worries were even more acute at the grass-roots levels, where the athletes were children whose brains were still developing.
“Existential threat is a good way to phrase it, to the extent that people at the beginning [of the concussion crisis] were beginning to wonder, ‘Is this game too dangerous to play?’ ” said Ralph Greene, the former head of Nike’s football division during the 2010s, who worked closely with the NFL and its broadcast networks on marketing and business strategies.
There are other reasons for the decline in football participation, including some that have been blamed for contributing to declines in other activities: the trend toward kids specializing earlier in one sport; digital distractions that keep more kids on their devices at the expense of sports participation; and the explosion in the number of after-school activities, including other sports, available to young people.
But when it came to football, those universal pressures were exacerbated by the growing recognition that the game’s very nature could cause brain damage. It is a reality the sport has gone to great lengths to try to remedy, and in some cases paper over. All 50 states now have laws regarding concussion protocols and rules limiting full-contact practices, and every rule change and technological advance seems designed to reduce violent collisions and their impacts.
“We started teaching and learning how to tackle differently,” said Steve Warren, legendary ex-head coach at Abilene (Tex.) High School and former president of the Texas High School Coaches Association. “The rules about using your helmet as a weapon started changing. And technology started changing the way they made and tested helmets. It all started changing. I don’t know another sport that has put as much time and money into keeping players safe as football has.”
For fans, and even many players, the physicality of the sport is its biggest draw.
“I love everything about football,” says Wayshawn Parker, a senior running back at Sacramento’s Grant Union High. “I love the contact. It relieves my anger.”
Still, the evidence of a link between football and brain trauma only gets stronger. Earlier this year, researchers at Boston University said CTE had been found in the brains of 345 of the 376 (92 percent) former NFL players they studied. And despite rule changes and safety measures, the NFL in 2022 reported an 18 percent rise in concussions, year over year.
“All these safety advances are offset by the fact the athletes are bigger, stronger and faster,” said Chris Nowinski, a neuroscientist and former football player at Harvard who is now CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “When people point to fewer deaths and fewer catastrophic injuries, what they fail to note is that medicine is dramatically better than it used to be. It’s not that football is safer — it’s that medicine is better.”
The dwindling number of young football players has been a consistent storyline over the past decade-plus, but the deeper demographic trends paint a fuller picture of what has occurred within the sport, and where it might be heading.
Just 7.5 percent of White boys ages 6 to 17 played tackle football last year, the lowest rate since at least 2014, according to data from USA Football, the sport’s governing body, which is funded in part by the NFL. It’s a trend that has prompted headlines about “White flight” from football.
In fact, though Black males still play at higher rates (11 percent), their participation rates have fallen in recent years, too. Meanwhile, another historically marginalized group appears to be filling the vacuum: Participation by Hispanic boys nearly matched that of White males last year.
The numbers make sense, according to former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, because in marginalized communities, football, despite the serious health risks, still represents a “way out” of poverty.
“It’s such a motivator for Black kids, [and] that overrides the injury factor,” said Frazier, who is from Mississippi, the nation’s most impoverished state and one of two where participation has risen significantly. “But if you’re [better off], you’re going to be more reluctant to let your kid play, if there are other ways they can make it in life besides football.”
Football’s long-standing racial gap appears to be growing at the college level. From 2011 to 2022, the percentage of White football players across all three divisions fell from 55 to 44 percent — a decline similar to that of several other popular men’s sports but one that outpaced demographic trends in the United States. During that stretch, while the national percentage of the Black population remained flat, Black representation in college football rose from 36 to 40 percent, the largest increase among men’s sports. The share of football players who identified as two or more races also tripled, from 2 to 6 percent.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the way wealth changes perspectives on kids playing football than the sheer number of NFL players, some of whom came from impoverished backgrounds, who have said publicly they would disallow their sons from playing the sport.
Former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth, now a commentator on radio, television and online, described the sense of empowerment he feels as a Black man in being able to keep his 10-year-old son out of the same game that improved his family’s economic status. Foxworth’s son plays flag football in suburban Maryland but has been told he can’t play tackle until high school.
“It means everything to have some level of choice and flexibility and opportunity,” said Foxworth, 40. “It’s why you played in the first place. It’s how I justify whatever fears I have about the future health of my brain. It sounds like a sacrifice any parent would make.”
The recent decline of White college football players — and the rise of Black players — has been most pronounced at the Division III level, where athletes don’t get athletic scholarships, and their path to the NFL is nearly nonexistent. This suggests to some academics that some smaller schools may be using the sport, with its typically large rosters, to help diversify their student bodies — a particular focus of many schools over the past decade, often achieved through generous financial aid packages.
White players have represented the majority of athletes in Division III football for as long as the NCAA’s demographics reports have existed. But that number is shrinking. From 2011 to 2022, the proportion of White players fell by 8 percentage points in Division I but by 14 in Division III. Meanwhile, the proportion of Black players rose by just 1 percentage point in Division I but by 6 in Division III.
Taken together, the data suggest football is increasingly the domain of historically oppressed minority groups, raising uncomfortable questions about the nature of America’s universal football fandom. The juxtaposition of falling participation rates and the NFL’s still-massive television ratings suggests many people who don’t want their kids risking brain injuries to play the sport are still tuning in to watch other people’s kids do the same.
“As long as the incentives are the way they are, I think we’ll see disproportionately White and affluent families leaving [tackle football] over time,” said Kathleen Bachynski, assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College and author of “No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis.”
And if that happens, she said, “it leaves [the sport] in a pretty troubling realm. It raises profound and, I would say, troubling questions about what risks we think are acceptable to whom.”
PLANTING A FLAG
In October, the International Olympic Committee made its usual quadrennial splash when it announced which new events would be featured in the 2028 Summer Games, which will take place in Los Angeles. But hiding in the ritual addition of sports, which this time included squash and cricket, was a signal to the country of football’s strategy: Flag football is going global.
“The NFL eventually came to understand this shift from tackle to flag that parents were driving at an early age was actually a boon to the game,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, which studies sports participation. “… The barriers for entry are so much lower. It costs less to play. You don’t need 11 players to play. Girls can play. Families can play.”
The NFL, which reported revenue of more than $18 billion in 2022, has not only embraced flag football but has attempted to co-opt it through its own nationwide league, NFL Flag, which now bills itself as the largest flag football organization in the United States. Last year, the league named star quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson as “Global Flag Ambassadors,” calling the sport “the cornerstone of the NFL’s domestic and international participation and development strategies.” This year’s Pro Bowl was a flag game.
“We have a major doubling-down on the messaging” behind flag football, said the NFL’s Oben. If the momentum behind flag carries through the 2028 Olympics, he said, it will “bring more kids [into the game] who are more likely to keep playing football in their own way.”
The results have been stunning: Flag football surpassed the tackle version in youth participation in 2017. Last year, just over 1 million children ages 6 to 12 played flag football regularly, compared with around 725,000 for tackle football, according to the SFIA. Eight states have sanctioned girls’ flag football as an interscholastic sport at the high school level, and as many as 20 more are considering similar steps, according to the NFL.
“The future of football,” top NFL executives have declared publicly several times in recent months, “is flag.”
Oben, the NFL VP, said the boom in flag football is at least partly the result of NFL and collegiate offenses becoming more wide-open and passing-focused. “The game is more about space and speed. It’s more about middle-schoolers … understanding complex route combinations,” he said. “Flag is more positioned now to be congruent and aligned with the way football is going.”
But within the NFL’s shift toward flag is a tacit acknowledgment: Because CTE is a cumulative, “dose-response” disease — its effects related to how many hits to the head one absorbs over time — the later someone starts playing tackle football, the better. A 2018 BU study of 211 ex-football players diagnosed with CTE after their deaths found that those who had started in tackle football before 12 suffered an earlier onset of cognitive, behavioral and mood symptoms by an average of 13 years. For each year younger a player started, symptoms came an average of 2 ½ years earlier.
Much of the focus of the scientific community, as well as advocates inside and outside the sport, has been on delaying the age of entry into tackle football until age 14 or later.
“If you started playing tackle football at five years old, you’ve likely already incurred brain damage before you get to college,” said Chris Borland, a former San Francisco 49ers linebacker who famously walked away from the sport in 2015 to protect his brain. “That’s not a framing that I see often. … If we can wait, we reduce the number of blows to the head that young people incur. And it doesn’t really change the [quality of the] game.”
But access to flag football is far from universal. Youth football is a sprawling, decentralized industry, and flag’s ascent has come as city and nonprofit sports leagues have increasingly lost market share to for-profit ventures. So while flag football is inherently cheaper than tackle, leagues are often clustered in wealthier urban neighborhoods and suburban towns.
When the Aspen Institute surveyed children in grades 3 through 12 in Oakland, Calif., it found that White children played flag football at a significantly higher rate than they played tackle, while the opposite was true for Black children. Other cities have seen similar dichotomies, The Post found, with the difference often coming down to access.
“The places where kids are transitioning to flag are the places where flag is available,” Nowinski said. “Flag just isn’t available in poorer, Blacker places. And if it was, people would probably transition.”
Oben, the NFL executive, said the primary obstacle in urban areas is the lack of available field space — a problem shared by many outdoor youth sports leagues. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, the league funded the construction of a football field where the city now operates an NFL Flag program that this season served around 120 kids, mostly from the inner city.
“Most cities have the same issues with scheduling,” he said. “You have to drive out a little bit to find fields in certain places. The people in suburban places have an advantage because there are more fields.”
For now, flag and tackle coexist within the same youth-sports ecosphere, though their diverging trajectories — flag growing rapidly in some places, tackle declining — suggest a reckoning is coming.
That’s what happened with the Carrollton Boosters, in a historic Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans. Following a rapid decline in its tackle football participation, the league started a flag program in 2014 that immediately outdrew its tackle program. The two existed side by side for that one year, but by 2015 the tackle program was disbanded.
“Our first year of flag was our last year of tackle,” said Justin Lemaire, the league’s president. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that the information coming out about CTE and the effects of tackle football on the players’ brains contributed to that.”
‘IT’S GOING TO DIE’
There are places in America almost impossible to imagine without grassroots-level football. To sit in the jam-packed stands at a pee-wee jamboree in Starkville, Miss.; to stand on the sidelines at a matchup of powerhouse high schools in Sacramento or suburban Dayton; or to drive through West Texas on a Friday night where every town is closed for business by kickoff time is to understand football’s grip on those places.
“Here in Texas, it’s faith, family and football,” said Brian Morgan, CEO of the Texas Youth Football Association. “And not necessarily in that order.”
But there are also places in America where it is almost impossible to imagine the sport making a major comeback. In the Northeast, where participation in general is already low, states such as Maine and Vermont have had significant drops over the past decade. In 2013, Delaware’s rate of football participation exceeded the national mark but has since fallen 30 percent.
“Going to a high school football game and seeing 70, 80, 90 kids on the sidelines? I’m just not sure those days are going to come back around here,” said Jim Schwantz, an NFL linebacker for parts of seven seasons in the 1990s, and now the mayor of Palatine, Ill., in the Chicago suburbs. Illinois saw a decline of 13 percent in high school participation in the past decade, emblematic of almost the entire Midwest.
In the same way the American political and cultural spheres have become fractured by tribalism — creating competing visions of America that have little or no use for the other — so, too, has the football landscape been divided into places where kids still mostly play tackle and places where they mostly don’t.
Within that divide are some of the hallmarks of the larger political divide in America: competing definitions of patriotism, distrust in the media, the fetishization of military symbolism, the trust and distrust of science.
“In a world where a sizable percentage of the population wants to imprison Anthony Fauci, it’s probably not a stretch that they would continue to [let their kids play] football,” said Keith Strudler, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State, who has studied Americans’ attitudes toward football, speaking of the immunologist who was part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
As Morgan, of the Texas Youth Football Association, put it: “If the movement is going to be to eliminate tackle football for kids under the age of 14, there’s going to have to be a lot better science behind it.”
It isn’t only CTE that is driving the divide. In a 2021 research paper titled “America’s Most Divided Sport: Polarization and Inequality in Attitudes about Youth Football,” Skidmore’s Lindner and Daniel N. Hawkins of the University of Nebraska-Omaha found that the NFL’s associations with military symbolism and overt patriotism also sow divisions. Those associations, they asserted, made football, alone among American sports, operate as a sort of “civil religion.”
“People who would encourage children to play football see it not as a child safety debate; instead, they experience tackle football as intertwined with their vision of America,” the paper read. “In short, kids playing football is about more than just football in a way that is not necessarily true of other sports.”
Viewed with a wider lens, though, the debate over youth football may already be over. Within the NFL’s embrace of flag football as an alternative gateway into the sport, many experts and advocates see the beginning of the end of tackle football for kids.
“I think the NFL’s behavior [in embracing flag] is very clear, in that they know which way this is going,” said Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “That’s why you’re seeing flag football becoming a high school sport. … It’s why [you saw] the push to get it into the Olympics. They’re trying to make the transition as slow and controlled as possible.”
Youth football, Nowinski believes, is doomed to die off, with the timing dependent on the NFL’s willingness to get behind a ban. If that happens, he said, “it dies very quickly.” And if not? “It’s going to die very slowly — but it’s still going to die. The [scientific] evidence is too strong.”
The future health of the sport, then, could hinge in large part on converting adolescent flag players into teenaged tackle players. Oben said the first major studies on those trends are in the works — “I’m looking forward to seeing them,” he said — but he pushed back on the notion that youth tackle football will die out.
“One doesn’t cannibalize the other,” he said. “The educated and informed parent is going to make the best decision for their kid, and both sports will grow. … Youth tackle football is still being played across the country on Saturday and Sunday wherever they can find field-space and time.”
Some have questioned whether the NFL can ever completely reject youth tackle football, because of the implicit message it would send.
“Banning tackle football for kids until high school becomes the warning label on the cigarettes,” documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon said during an Aspen Institute panel. “It will impact the way we see the game once we truly are honest about the way it impacts human beings of any age.”
Legislation could hasten the process. Lawmakers in at least six liberal-leaning states — California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have introduced bills in recent years that would ban tackle football for children younger than 12. But so far, the legislation has met strong opposition from the youth football industry and its backers, and none has passed.
The industry, in other words, won’t go quietly. In a 2018 speech at the annual conference of USA Football, the NFL-funded organization that serves as the sport’s national governing body, David Baker, the now-retired president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, summed up the football-as-America argument: “If we lose football, we lose a lot in America,” he said. And if that happens, Baker said, “I don’t know if America can survive.”
But even as football flexes its resilience and eternal appeal, the demographic shifts within the sport also appear entrenched and likely to continue. Fifty years ago, when boxing was at the height of its popularity, it might have seemed unfathomable the sport would become almost irrelevant nationally — reduced, in part due to its inherent risk of brain injury, to a pursuit confined almost entirely to marginalized communities.
“I don’t see how it’s different than any other industry, to be honest,” Foxworth said. “The dangerous jobs are going to go to the most desperate people. This country is like that. It’s sad but true.”