Auburn High School Football 7.JPG

Players raise their helmets in unity after a day of practice as Auburn High School football gets ready for the 2019 season.

Football has been in an uneasy place in the last decade.

Long considered the sport for modern gladiators, the sport's association with concussions and long-term brain injuries has, understandably, scared off parents from allowing their children to participate.

In late August, @NCAAResearch tweeted a graphic that showed football had one of the largest participation declines over the last decade among boys high school sports.

The source was the National Federation of High Schools, the governing body for high school sports around the United States, including New York's. According to the NFHS, there was a 9.6% decrease in the number of high school football players in the United States from 2008-09 to 2018-19. Only rifle (-11.7%) and gymnastics (32.4%) had larger drops among boys sports.

Now, there were still over 1 million high school players last season, which almost doubles the next highest sport (outdoor track and field, which had over 600,000 participants).

In a sense football is still king, but its grip is slipping.

That's why continuous study and evolution of certain rules, across any level of football, were so important.

Ever heard of Dr. Bennet Omalu? Omalu is the co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, and he was the first person to identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players in 2002. His studies were, naturally, met with skepticism from the NFL.

Ten years after Omalu's discovery, a joint lawsuit from 2,000 former players was filed against the NFL for "failing to notify players of the link between concussions and brain injuries." In 2016, the NFL implemented a new policy to enforce concussion protocol, and a number of rule changes were made, including a reduced kickoff and penalties for hits to the head and neck area. Similar rules have been put in place for college football.

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Organizations like the NFL or NCAA have poured billions of dollars into concussion research, and while their reason for doing so was motivated by ongoing or potential lawsuits, players should no longer be uninformed about the risk for brain injuries.

It's important that parents and children are informed too. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Tuesday that required tackle football programs to provide parents or guardians of participating players with "informational packets regarding concussions, sub-concussive blows, and injuries that may result from such blows."

New York state's press release did not give specifics on exactly what these packets must include, though according to Cuomo it must be the "latest up-to-date information." His legislation applies to various levels, whether it be Pop Warner or high school.

While not a new development like Cuomo's legislation, sections around New York state have taken other protective measures when it comes to high school football. Section III recommends that a physician be available at all games, and if one is not available, there must be a qualified medical professional present, like a certified athletic trainer. Some programs, like Auburn's, have even had a trainer present for preseason practice.

Speaking of practice, the shear volume of those heading into the season has been dialed back, another measure to prevent repeated head contact. Section III requires that the first three days of football practice be non-contact (with helmets). Players are not permitted for full contact until after five practices.

In 10 years, it'll be interesting to revisit the aforementioned participation numbers for high school football. Will football still be the most popular boys sport? Will schools ditch their tackle programs for flag football? Time will answer those questions.

I'd hesitate to call football safe. It's not only a contact sport, but a collision sport. Injuries will happen, and unfortunately so will concussions. However, it's certainly a safer sport than it was.

As high school and youth football begin this month, it's on all of us, whether it be parents, coaches, or observers, to continue to explore opportunities to inform and protect the players.

Football is a great game, and its highs and lows both deserve our attention.

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Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.