Prep football numbers in state freefalling

By Chris Murphy Forum News Service MOORHEAD -- Moorhead football coach Kevin Feeney paused for a second. It was as if he hadn't prepared to even think of the possibility of football becoming a club sport and no longer part of the Minnesota State ...

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(Tom Larson, Tribune) Helmets, shoulder pads and jerseys are shown scattered across the Montevideo High School practice field in this Aug. 11 photo.

By Chris Murphy

Forum News Service

MOORHEAD - Moorhead football coach Kevin Feeney paused for a second. It was as if he hadn’t prepared to even think of the possibility of football becoming a club sport and no longer part of the Minnesota State High School League.

It was as if someone had told him high school football had died.

“I’d hate to see that,” Feeney said. “I think there’s just such great life lessons to learn from the game of football. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the game of football. I’d hate to see that.”


Football still has the largest participation numbers of any high school sport in Minnesota with 377 teams fielding 25,487 players in the 2013-14 school year. But the drop over the last 15 years is hard to ignore.

In the 1999-00 school year, there were 385 teams and 32,193 participants. Since then, participation numbers for football have steadily dropped every year but two.

The drop has Hawley football coach Peder Naatz thinking football will someday no longer be a sport provided by high schools.

“I feel that schools will finally decide to not support football or provide football as an opportunity and it’ll become a club sport,” Naatz said. “I have a feeling because of the liability of injury possibility and the traumatic things that often times happen, it’s probably going to be a club sport and we won’t have to worry about the (MSHSL) and we won’t have to worry about it in school.”

Naatz was in the same boat as Feeney, saying it’s not something he wants to see happen.

“Just because I think it’s going to happen sometime doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea,” Naatz said. “If it becomes that, I really wouldn’t want too much involvement. I just think that if it gets to that it’s going to be too many people thinking that they have too much influence over it because of maybe a sponsorship they’re providing. It won’t be run as true as a high school program because you won’t have an athletic director or a superintendent and a head coach and a coaching staff, who have a chain of command to follow.”

MSHSL associate director Kevin Merkle didn’t exactly squash the possibility of football becoming a club sport.

“I have no idea,” Merkle said when asked if football could someday leave high schools. “I strongly believe that we need to keep working to make the game safer and I think we can, while making it better. I also believe that we have to keep the safety aspect and the concussion aspect in proper perspective. A very serious issue, but not everyone suffers concussions and playing youth or high school football is different from the colleges and pros. With all of that said, there are lawsuits and other issues which could create major problems.”


Outside of concussion and safety issues, Merkle feels as though the dip is also because of high school athletes focusing on one sport.

“We have more kids who play hockey, basketball or baseball in the fall, instead of playing football,” Merkle said. “With injury concerns, sports specialization and the many other opportunities kids have, they will be less likely to stick with a sport like football if the team they play for is not very good. That seems to be playing a bigger role than what it has in the past.”

According to Naatz, Feeney and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton coach Anthony Soderberg, their numbers have been steady for football. But statewide participation numbers are dropping.

From the 1999-00 school year through the 2013-14 season, high school football in Minnesota has seen a 20.8 percent decrease and an 8.9 percent decrease between the 2008-09 and 2013-14 school years. Boys basketball has decreased 0.9 percent, while boys hockey has increased 1.1 percent, boys soccer has increased 2.8 percent, wrestling has increased 7.1 percent and boys track and field has increased 19.3 percent, between the 2008-09 and 2013-14 school years.

In that same period, even a sport like baseball, which has the relatively new popularity of lacrosse to compete with in the spring, has had a 6.7 percent decrease, 2.2 percent less of a drop than football.

Nationally it isn’t much different, as high school participation dropped for the sixth time in seven seasons from 2008-2014. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations 37 states have seen a decline since 2008. From 1998 to 2008, countrywide participation went from 886,840 to 1,112,303. It dropped to 1,083, 617 athletes playing 11-man football last year.

“When the (President of the United States) is saying he doesn’t know if he’d let his kids play football then it’s not good,” Feeney said. “Around here the numbers are good and I credit our youth programs and middle school programs of teaching the game the right way and understanding kids are taught the proper techniques to stay injury-free. That’s all athletics and football is at the forefront because that’s what people think of when they think of contact sports. There’s a lot of contact sports and football takes the brunt of it.”






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