Future of high school football a national concern

Sam Cusano is a goodwill ambassador for high school football.

The senior strong safety/running back at Granite Bay enjoys practicing daily, embraces the lessons learned in team adversity and achievement, and looked forward to the opportunity to play rival Del Oro on Friday night in a regular-season finale with a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth on the line.

By any measure, Cusano champions this game. He volunteers to work with the Granite Bay youth feeder program that includes his 10-year-old brother, Frankie. Cusano is doing his part to keep the game healthy, imploring teammates and the next generation of players that this game is safe as long as it’s played smart.

But warning signs hover ominously. There have been eight teenage football-related deaths across the country so far this season, according to studies from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. In 2014, five prep players died.

“This is the greatest game,” Cusano said Friday morning, “but there’s a fear that it’s a dying sport.”

Participation in high school football has dropped nationally in five of the past six years, though it remains by far the most popular sport with nearly 1.1 million competing last season, according to an annual survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Area high school coaches noticed an overall decline in freshman and junior varsity participation, and coaches understand that the risk of injury is greater on a smaller roster. West Campus in the Sacramento City Unified School District elected not to play the second half in at least two varsity games this season after trailing by as many as eight touchdowns, surrendering early to avoid serious injuries.

Area coaches have also regularly visited youth feeder programs to stress the benefits of the game while also urging safe-tackling techniques. These coaches have also reduced their own hitting sessions to one day a week, the result of new state laws and just plain common sense.

Cusano and his Granite Bay teammates have even considered new tackling techniques.

“We’ve adopted a method to tackle from behind, to keep your head out of a play,” Cusano said. “And we always have an emphasis on safety in practice. This method of tackling is different because you go on natural instinct and sometimes dive in there with your head. If we can teach the younger players how to play the game right, it’ll help.”

From his Sacramento office, Roger Blake has studied the numbers of catastrophic football injuries across the country and winced. He is the executive director for the California Interscholastic Federation and he wonders about the future of football in the United States, at all levels.

“I say this in all sincerity: I think high school football (at a national level) is at a critical juncture the next two to three years,” Blake said Wednesday in a statewide conference call. “I really think we’re going to have to watch and look at the medical science and see what the medical community says about the future.”

Blake offered perspective, too, reminding that there are “more kids involved in tragic accidents in cars at 15 years old than the 1.1 million high school football players playing.”

“That doesn’t make it right, but we have to figure out if there’s a way for us, as educational leaders, to try to make the game safer,” Blake continued. “We’re relying on the medical community and science community to look at what we have to do. Are we seeing those reports? Yes. Are we taking them seriously? What adult wouldn’t take it seriously? We all have to.”

Football playoffs start next week, and it’ll be a six-week dash to the CIF State Bowls with upper-division games held at Sacramento State. Some administrators and parents have argued that 16 games is too many, but California member schools voted for expansion, explaining that most schools don’t even advance past the 10-week regular season. And starting this season, each section champion will advance to a Northern California or Southern California Regional title game, unlike years past where a committee selected such teams. So instead of five divisions, there will be 13, meaning more games and more excitement. And more risks.

“The second issue, the ongoing tragedies that we’re seeing nationally, everybody is saying the same thing,” Blake said. “When a student has a catastrophic injury or a death, it’s tragic. Nationally, everybody is looking at it. Historically, high school athletics in the United States are safer today than they were 30 years ago. The number of catastrophic injuries and death are significantly less than the past two decades ago. However, if that’s your child, or my child ... wow.”