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Hard hit: New Jersey high school

forced to drop varsity football


By Washington Post, adapted by Newsela sta on 08.30.17
Word Count 933
Level 1160L

High school students at football practice. Many high schools in the Midwest and Northeast are shedding their football
programs because of a lack of players. Photo by: Mark Makela for Washington Post

WEST WINDSOR TOWNSHIP, New Jersey The nationwide forces that are beginning to
uproot football have converged at a place called High School North.

Demographic shifts, concussions, single-sport specialization and cost have led West Windsor-
Plainsboro High School North to drop varsity football this season. The Knights, with a team of
37 players, will play a junior varsity schedule.

High School South, the other high school in the district, might have to do the same next year,
along with high schools from four other neighboring areas, West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools
Superintendent David Aderhold said.

The moves reect a crisis for football - youth numbers have plummeted all over the country
recently - but one that has accelerated in this community near New York City.

"We're the leading edge of a much larger iceberg when it comes to what's coming in youth
athletics," Aderhold said.

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Football Enrollment Declines

Football participation has dropped rapidly. High school football enrollment is down 4.5 percent
over the last decade, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

More schools are elding football teams nationwide, though with fewer players. Oklahoma,
Florida and Arkansas together have added 150 football teams in the past ve years. But other
regions - namely the Midwest and Northeast - are shedding high school football programs.
Michigan has seen a net loss of 57 teams in the past ve years. Missouri has lost 24.
Pennsylvania has lost 12.

Youth Leagues Also See Drop In Participation

Youth levels of football, leagues high schools lean on for future players, saw a nearly 30
percent drop in participation between 2008 and 2013, according to data collected by the
Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

"Football can be a great game, and still can oer many benets," said Tom Farrey, executive
director of the Aspen Institute. "It takes a lot to do football right, and more than a few youth and
school programs are groaning under that pressure."

Demographic Changes Also An Issue

Demographic changes in West Windsor mean families there are less familiar with American
football. Sixty-one percent of High School North's 1,500-some students are Indian- and Asian-
American.

"We didn't grow up with football being part of the culture," High School North booster club
president Sandy Johnson said. Johnson is Chinese-American and married to Olin Johnson,
who is white and coaches one of West Windsor's youth football teams. "It's a struggle when
parents don't know the sport."

Concerns over head injuries have also driven some parents to lead their children away from
football.

It has all led to North elding a team of only ve varsity players this fall, senior quarterback
Brian Murphy said. South has a senior class with just 11 players.

Football coaches and boosters at every level of play in West Windsor have scrambled to
recruit parents to sign their children up for football or give their teens permission to try the
sport.

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The Makeup Of Town Has Changed

In so doing, they have found that the face of the town has changed. The technology boom and
high-skill jobs in biotechnology, medicine, nance and education have attracted a new class of
migrants to these suburbs, where the annual household income measures at $161,750. Those
parents aren't signing their kids up for football as often as the rest of the nation.

"I doubt many Italian or Jewish kids knew what baseball was when they stepped on Ellis
Island," said Steve Rome whose son plays on South. "It's the same thing."

The area's youth football league oers new parents a free 21-day trial period for football. They
moved spring ag football practice to days that don't conict with other sports, team president
Donald Haas said. They oer full scholarships if parents aren't sure about the $225
registration fee.

Injury Risks Also A Concern For Parents

Parents have growing concerns about the injury risk involved with football, specically head
injuries. A slew of recent academic studies have presented varying conclusions about the risk
of long-term brain damage resulting from concussions.

Haas, a cardiologist, spends time going through studies with families. He breaks down the
relative risk of playing football with other sports like soccer, where the risk of concussions is
actually higher.

"What we've talked about in our program is not about whether there's risk," Haas said.
"There's risk in everything. It's whether that risk is manageable."

Aderhold, the superintendent, petitioned three of New Jersey's high school athletics governing
bodies to merge North and South's teams. All three bodies rejected the request.

Senior Player Caught In A Bind

That put Murphy, the Knights' senior starting quarterback, in a bind. Murphy threw for more
than 2,200 yards his junior season, to go with 24 touchdowns. Coaches from Yale, Villanova,
Georgetown and others have asked about his college plans.

Murphy has told them he'll play North's junior varsity schedule so he won't have to transfer his
senior year of high school.

A Georgetown coach, his parents said, told him not to bother sending in more game tape.
Coaches wouldn't look at JV lm.

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Thinking Ahead To College

Ivy League schools like seeing team sports experience on applications, coaches tell parents.
They point to studies that show a strong link between athletics participation and academic
improvement. There is a payo down the road to playing sports, especially football, they
argue.

This is what's at stake should High School North lose its football team, boosters say. It would
aect the recruiting and college options for the team's student-athletes. The Friday night
atmosphere. The main stage for cheerleaders, and North's acclaimed marching band.

"When North played South, that was a big deal," Haas said. "There's a ripple eect from
football."

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