Just as it does with American sports fans and on the big screen, the pigskin reigns supreme in high school sports.
Despite well-established health risks and an increasing number of former NFL players suffering memory loss, the number of high school football players continues to dwarf participation in other sports, namely track and field, basketball and baseball. In 2011-12, nearly 1.1 million American boys played on an 11-player high school squad, compared to just 575,628 athletes who pounded the track and 535,289 who played basketball, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
“It is the sport in our country, and it’s been sitting there for a long time — for ever and ever,” NFHS spokesman Bruce Howard told FoxNews.com. “It’s like soccer in other parts of the world.”
Indeed, football’s dominance among U.S. sports is well-established, with more people tuning in to watch Wednesday’s season debut with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys than those who watched the Democratic National Convention. But will new studies that found retired players with five or more seasons in the NFL are four times as likely as other men their age to die of Alzheimer’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease deter parents from letting their kids play cornerback or outside linebacker?
“There’s certainly some concern going forward, are you able to keep these same kinds of levels of participation?” Howard continued. “From our standpoint, we write playing rules for high school sports and that’s our number one priority — trying to minimize the risk of injury for those playing the sport.”
An estimated 67,000 diagnosed concussions occur during high school football games each year and at least 50 youth football players from 20 different states have reportedly died or sustained serious head injuries on the gridiron since 1997.
“If you weren’t seeing stars after a hit, it wasn’t a good hit."
Howard said safety of the game has improved by “light years” from a generation ago, but acknowledged that injuries will continue to occur in the often-brutal game.
“It’s a collision sport,” he said. “You’re not going to play the sport without having those types of issues.”
More than 3,000 former NFL players have sued the NFL over claims that it did not properly warn them of the dangers of head injuries and the long-term consequences of repeated, violent blows. One of those players, Brad Culpepper, a defensive tackle who played eight seasons with three teams, told FoxNews.com that while he’s concerned for the safety of his son who now quarterbacks his high school team, there’s no way he’s keeping his kid off the field.
“As a parent, I’m obviously concerned about what all of my kids do in terms of their health and academics, but the coaches and trainers around high school football and the NFL are much more aware of the problem now,” said Culpepper, who now a personal injury attorney in Tampa, Fla. “Am I worried about it? It’s not something I think about frequently. I have no problem with him playing.”
Throughout his career, Culpepper, 43, said he experienced “hundreds” if not “thousands” of concussions as a lineman who smashed opposing players with his head and hands on every play.
“If you weren’t seeing stars after a hit, it wasn’t a good hit,” he told FoxNews.com. “Good luck getting separation from a 300-pound lineman while not using your head and hands. Every single week I would see a grid or stars at some point.”
Culpepper, however, insists the specter of long-term injury what keep his son Rex — or others across the country, for that matter — from playing football.
“I don’t think the concussion situation will have any effect on the popularity of football,” he said. “Football is king in this country. I think being aware of concussions is going to make for a better game and that’s what [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell wants.
“Am I worried about him? I’m worried about him throwing an interception,” he said. “He’s a tough kid. He’ll get hit in the mouth and he’ll pop right back up.”
Dr. Clarence Shields, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine in Los Angeles, told Fox News Radio that teenage athletes are still learning to use their bodies, potentially putting them at an increased risk of injury.
“Athletic skills will sometimes protect you from getting hurt,” he said. “Anybody can try out for the football team — whether you’re really good or aren’t very good doesn’t really matter. And a lot of times, the technique for blocking and tackling, they don’t understand very well. So, they are at a little bit of a higher risk because of their skill set.”
And while some recent studies have shown increased numbers of concussions among teenagers, that’s likely due to better tracking and diagnoses, Shields said. Furthermore, the common conception that one massive blow is the thing to watch for isn’t exactly true. Multiple hits over time can be just as damaging to the brain, he said.
“So if you get dizzy, that’s level one of a concussion,” he said. “And that’s what’s happening now.”
Unlike Culpepper, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, whose grandson now plays football, told Fox News Radio he is worried about serious injury on the field.
“My biggest concern was the league he was playing in, who he was going to be coached by and if he was going to be coached properly,” Moon said. “You’re never going to see injuries in football or concussions in football go away, it’s a collision sport. Things are going to happen by accident sometimes, heads are going to collide, but if you can cut down on those numbers, you’ll make a lot of improvement in the game.”