Ryan Clarke

For more data on high school sports participation, visit http://nfhs.org/ParticipationStatistics/ParticipationStatistics/.

Over the last 10 years in the state of Oregon, high school football participation has dropped by almost 17 percent, from 15,009 players in the 2008-09 school year down to 12,473 in 2017-18. This follows a national trend that likely stems from parental concerns about player safety — primarily concussions and the potential for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But football is not experiencing the harshest decline in participation, at least here in Oregon, where just under 100,000 high schoolers participated in sports last year. Boys golf is down 48 percent since the 2008-09 school year, and baseball has experienced a drop of more than 17 percent in that same period, according to a report released this month by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Those numbers are shocking at first glance. Golf makes a little bit of sense given the cost barriers to entry that sometimes go with the sport, but for participation to drop by almost half is eye-opening. Could the disappearance of Tiger Woods from golf’s elite have something to do with this, or are boys just choosing to play other, more affordable sports? Girls golf has dropped too, by more than 16 percent.

To me, the most confounding number is the decrease in baseball turnout. Baseball is a sport that defines many children’s athletic experiences — including T-ball, Little League and the like — but by the time they reach high school it seems to fade from their interests.

I graduated from high school in Portland in 2014. The primary reason that some of my high school friends quit baseball, they said, was the time commitment. It has become year-round with the growth of club or travel teams, and those who do not participate in club are often at a disadvantage — both athletically and within the politics of the school’s baseball team.

Left with a choice between playing multiple sports and spending all their time on just one, kids are better off — at least in my experience — choosing multiple. Sports doctors have written op-eds and academic papers in recent years explaining that playing multiple sports reduces the risk of injury and burnout for these athletes, so it would seem to be in the young athletes’ best interests to diversify. A 2017 study by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine echoed that sentiment and found that sports specialization does not increase an athlete’s chance of success. Oftentimes, according to the study, specialization has the opposite effect.

One sport that appears to be resistant to its potential year-round demands is basketball. Both boys and girls participation in Oregon has hovered around 6,000 for each gender over the past 10 years, even as offseason club teams and AAU become increasingly necessary for those looking to be recruited to play at the college level, or even just to make their high school team.

But the large majority of basketball players aren’t going to play at the next level. For most of them, high school is the final place they will play competitively, other than rec centers and collegiate intramurals. Basketball’s participation numbers tend to be steady because team sizes don’t fluctuate like they do in some other sports. There are only a certain number of roster spots on a basketball squad, and that almost never varies.

It should also be noted that certain other sports in Oregon are seeing a significant increase in participation, possibly siphoning off of the sports in decline. Boys and girls track and field are up about 10 and 13 percent, respectively, and cross-country is up 23 percent for boys and nearly 19 percent for girls. (While the NFHS report did not include water polo or lacrosse, the growth of both of those sports in Central Oregon has been notable in recent years.)

Athletes are running — literally — to other sports in both spring and fall. What does this mean for the future of the sports in decline, though? Not much — at least not yet. Football remains the most popular sport in the state by a wide margin — with nearly 3,000 more participants than boys track — and baseball is still an integral part of American sports culture.

The dangers of football will reach a point of reckoning someday, but don’t expect a widespread elimination of high school football programs any time soon. While we are waiting, though, we should be mindful of all participation numbers and what they say about how the sports landscape is changing here in our home state.

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, rclarke@bendbulletin.com