Fewer NJ schools offer football, fewer signing up to play
For the fourth straight year, participation in high school football has declined in the Garden State.
According to the latest survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), male participation in 11-player football at New Jersey high schools fell by more than 1,000 players from 2016 to 2017. The tally stands at 23,129 boys and girls, compared to 26,335 during the 2013-2014 academic year.
And the number of high schools sponsoring football fell by 3.
It was a severe participation shortage that forced West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North to scratch its varsity team for the 2017 season.
With the "South" high school struggling for players as well, the district received approval from the state to join forces starting with the 2018 season.
"The two schools are rivals, and it's nice to see them come together as one," said Ken Mason, the district's athletic director.
The team, known as WWP, opens its season against Trenton Central on September 7.
Between the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels, more than 90 students are involved in the football program, Mason said.
"I think we have at least solved the problem for now," Mason said. "I don't know record-wise how we're going to do. But at this point that really doesn't matter. We just want kids that can play and play safely."
During the 2016 season, High School North's last year with a standalone varsity team, 14-year-old "kids" were playing against 18-year-old "men" so the school could field enough players for games, Mason said.
Mason pointed to a changing demographic in the area that has led to a decline in football participation over the past few years. The Asian-American and Indian-American students, he said, are showing more interest in spots like soccer, swimming, lacrosse and tennis.
Football is still the No. 1 participatory sport for boys in New Jersey.
Nationally, 11-player football saw participation dip for the second consecutive year. The decline in numbers was not as high as 2016.
"We are encouraged that the decline in high school football has slowed due, in part, to our efforts in reducing the risk of injury in the sport," Karissa Neihoff, NFHS executive director, said in a news release. While there may be other reasons that students elect not to play football, we have attempted to assure student-athletes and their parents that thanks to the concussion protocols and rules in place in every state in the country, the sport of football is as safe as it ever has been.”
The survey shows overall participation in high school sports increased nationwide for the 29th consecutive year. In New Jersey, however, the number dropped by more than 1,800.