On the air all over

I was on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin Week in Review Friday morning segment this morning, which you can listen to or even download here. (Listen for the references to nuclear holocaust movies, which didn’t include “The Day After” or “Fail-Safe.”)

This week starts the high school football season, which means I am announcing a game tonight and a game Saturday night, both of which can be heard online. The start of high school football is not a holiday, but, believe it or don’t, today is Black Cow Root Beer Float Day, National Aviation Day, National Hot and Spicy Food Day (you’d think that and the previous holiday wouldn’t really go together), National Potato Day, National Men’s Grooming Day, National Sandcastle and Sculpture Day, World Humanitarian Day and World Photo Day.

Saturday, by the way, is highlighted by National Radio Day, National Honey Bee Day, Lemonade Day, National Bacon Lover’s Day and National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day.

But about tonight and tomorrow, Travis Wilson writes on the state of high school football:

It is en vogue to take shots at football for being too violent, too dangerous, and something that will not last the next few decades.

In Wisconsin this year, three 11-Man football teams have canceled their seasons in the last few weeks, with a pair of 8-Man teams suffering the same fate. It led to numerous questions about the sustainability of high school football, especially in the small schools. Newspaper articles and internet commenters rushed to forecast the demise of high school football.

However, despite challenges faced in the arena of public opinion, the actual game at the high school level in the state of Wisconsin remains strong.

In data provided by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, while overall high school enrollment in the state of Wisconsin (public and private schools) fell by 3,094 students from the 2014-15 year to 2015-16, the number of players out for football at the start of 2015-16 was 883 higher than the previous season, this despite four fewer teams overall.

An analysis of enrollment and participation data provided by the WIAA shows no significant change in the overall participation rate in high school football over the last 16 years. In 2000-01, the first year private schools joined their public school counterparts in the WIAA and the first year full data is available, the beginning-season football participation rate amongst all high school students was 9.50%. Outside of several years where full private school enrollment information is not available, which skews those seasons, the football participation rate has remained between 9.12% (2003-04) and 9.63% (2001-02).

The participation rate for the 2015-16 season of 9.46% was the third-highest of the last 16 years (not counting the years of no enrollment data for private schools). So, in the face of increased publicity about concussions, heat-related dangers, etc., the sport continues to be the highest participation sport in the country and the state at the high school level, and the participation rate has been largely unchanged for nearly two decades.

While it is true that the raw participation figures for football are decreasing over the last 10-15 years, it is a result of decreasing populations in the state of Wisconsin more than a decrease in the interest or participation levels.

The WIAA and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association have done a great job trying to spread the message about the measures taken in recent years to make football even safer, with numerous studies continuing to show that football is as safe as it has ever been. But public opinion and the shots taken at the game in the media are an ongoing challenge.

Both the WFCA and the WIAA, along with the schools impacted by low numbers in football programs, have to search for solutions to ensure that those student-athletes and communities that want to continue the sport of football have that option. As evidenced by recent rules changes that make the game safer as well as increased support of 8-Man football, the leadership in the state remains proactive and I trust will continue to do so. No one wants to cancel a season, especially right before games begin.

There is a sense among some that the start date of football, which has crept into the end of July the next two years, is chasing away players. While that may the case in some isolated instances, the overall participation numbers continue to show no significant change. Many coaches cite other reasons (sport specialization, not going to start on varsity, jobs, etc.) that players have given for not coming out for football.

It is important for everyone to be up front and honest about the possibilities of injury and the out-of-season work it takes to be involved in football. But it is also important to continue to spread the word about the measures taken to improve the game, and wherever possible, cultivate a sense of excitement, not trepidation, about high school football.

As a former football player under coach Jim Harris and WFCA Hall of Fame coach Avitus Ripp at Richland Center High School, I can certainly attest to the many positives that I took from the game, and can tell you unequivocally that I have no regrets about coming out for football my sophomore year after choosing not to play as a freshman. It is a great game that you will cherish for the rest of your life.


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