All of the following are matters of choice: Playing high school football, attending high school football games, watching high school football on TV, or supporting the sport in any other form. In other words, no one is forcing anyone else to engage in the world of tackle football.
Having played this sport myself, I cannot imagine anyone being required to play football, given the mental and physical commitment required.
It is equally difficult to imagine how assorted eggheads could abolish high school football, short of installing a sports and cultural dictator within a totalitarian anti-football regime. However, that is not to say they won’t continue trying.
The second word I associate with high school football, despite the critical fire it has been taking lately, is character. Yes, though leftist intellectuals may howl derisively, I firmly believe that football builds character for many of the one-million-plus children who annually play the sport.
My conviction stems from my own experience played this hallowed sport. However, I have heard and read similar testimonials from many other former players. By playing football, you learn to persevere through tough conditions that you didn’t know you were capable of conquering. (Doing 40-yard wind sprints at the end of two-a-day practices in August will do that for you.) You learn to test your mettle in one-on-one drills in practice. You learn to master game schemes for blocking or blitzing or executing passing routes, depending on your position. And you learn that this sport is about more than you. It is about working together as a team.
Ultimately, it was my coach at Douglas S. Freeman High School (Henrico County, Virginia)— Bill Long—who meant the most for my life after my school years. Being a clueless kid, I didn’t even know until after graduation that Coach Long had served in the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper in World War II. That speaks to his toughness, but Coach Long himself was not one to speak of his accomplishments. He was a man of few words, rarely if ever spoken in loud, angry tones. Instead, his most effective means of communication was via The Look.
Coach had one disappointed, soul-penetrating look to give you if you had messed up. You wanted to do anything you could to avoid that look. On the other hand, he had another look, accompanied by a grin, to give you if you had done something stellar, such as the time (through luck and a little skill) I managed to take out two opponents with one block to spring our punt returner for a touchdown run. You would give your all to get that look.
During my working years, I recalled Coach Long’s lessons often, even though seeing him in person infrequently. At a chance meeting, I do remember him asking me what I was doing to keep fit. From The Look, I knew he was diplomatically expressing his disappointment that I looked like a blimp, not one of his athletes. Ever since that encounter, I have tried to stay active with daily walking and workout classes. Even now, four years after Coach’s passing at age 92, I think of him often and strive to be worthy of his look of approval.
In the bigger picture, high school football continues to be the most participatory sport for boys. (For girls, track and field leads the way with volleyball a close second.) The National Federation of State High School Associations reported 1,035,942 kids who played 11-man football at 14,079 schools during the 2017-18 school year. Despite the cascade of negative media reporting about injuries, the number of high schools with football teams declined by only 20 from the previous year.
Now, football is catching on among families who highly value educational choice. Yes, homeschool football teams—organized independently—are proliferating across the nation. In the latest Google alert I received for homeschooling news, eight of every 10 stories were about homeschool football teams. In one particularly remarkable contest, undefeated Wichita Homeschool defeated Sunrise Christian 88-66.
There are even national championship playoffs for hotshot 11-man or 8-man homeschool teams. Ten years ago, 20 homeschool organizations registered their teams for one such tourney. This year, close to 100 competed to make the finals.
A reasonable part of the choice process should ensure that parents and students weigh all known risks before signing up. I would suggest two other factors to consider as well: (1) the many changes made in football over the past decade to make it even safer for participants than it was back in my glory days, and (2) the intangible character-building rewards throughout a lifetime from playing football for your school.