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TMQ: Is Football Hurting Boys Chances in College?


The opening thoughts from Gregg Easterbrook’s TMQ article this week are somewhat provocative:

Here are two facts about our busy world:

Fact 1: Enthusiasm for football has never been higher — not just for the NFL, but with young boys and teens. Participation in prep football has increased 21 percent in the past 20 years, by nearly 200,000 boys per year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Many states have begun to allow what is essentially year-round football practice. Youth-league tackle football is expanding. American boys are devoting more time and effort to football than ever before.

Fact 2: In higher education, student populations are increasingly female. Twenty years ago, there were more men in college than women. Now there are more women, and the ratio of college women to men is rising.

Women are taking more of the available slots in college at the same time boys are spending more time playing football. Are these two facts related?

The main force must be that girls as a group are doing very well in high school, making them attractive candidates for college. But perhaps the rising popularity of football is at the same time decreasing boys’ chances of college admission.

Having ever-more boys being bashed on the head in football, while more play full-pads tackle at young ages, may be causing brain trauma that makes boys as a group somewhat less likely to succeed as students. In the highly competitive race for college admissions, even a small overall medical disadvantage for boys could matter. More important, the increasing amount of time high school boys devote to football may be preventing them from having the GPA and extracurriculars that will earn them regular admission to college when recruiters don’t come calling.

First the women’s surge in college. According to College Board statistics, the Yale student body is now 52 percent female. The universities of Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin are 53 percent female. Williams College, which did not admit women until 1970, is now 53 percent female. Cal and the University of Iowa are 54 percent female. USC is 55 percent female. My alma mater, Colorado College, is 56 percent female. Ohio Wesleyan is 57 percent female. The University of Georgia is 62 percent female. Figures are similar across higher education.

The Atlantic Monthly essayist Hanna Rosin has written, “Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools  for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will.” Richard Whitmore’s 2009 book “Why Boys Fail” supposes the advantage for women would be even greater if many colleges and universities did not quietly use lower admissions standards for males, fearing a tipping point at which the school would be perceived as a women’s college even if it was not. That is: women are doing better at getting into college even though colleges favor men in admissions, as Jennifer Britz, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, believes.

Perhaps female success in college is a reflection of women taking over the world, as Rosin argues here. But why are women taking over the world? Rosin supposes that in the modern knowledge economy, superior college performance confers a substantial advantage on women.

But why are women doing so well in college? Maybe one of the reasons is that many boys are seeing their college chances sabotaged by football.

Rising interest in athletics cannot in and of itself be the explanation, because in the last generation, girls’ and women’s participation in athletics has skyrocketed. But there is one sport girls do not play — football. The gender that plays football is falling behind in college. The gender that does not play football is excelling.

Is brain harm to boys from football a factor? This new article in the technical journal Neurosurgery finds that suffering two or more concussions during high school days is associated with neurological problems later in life. Probably rising awareness of concussions, especially the new trend to require concussion seminars for high school coaches and teachers (see more below), will help mitigate part of the problem.

At the same time, youth tackle football is growing in popularity, which means ever-more young boys being hit on the head. The immature brain case of preteens is more vulnerable to harm than the heads of high-school-aged teens. Even the low-speed, low-impact head hits of Pop Warner-style youth football may cause gradually accumulating damage. As the important new book “The Concussion Crisis,” by Linda Carroll and David Rosner, shows in detail, lots of minor hits to the helmet may cause football players more harm than a few big hits. As more young boys play full-pads youth football, they sustain lots of minor hits to the helmet.

As recently as a decade ago my county, Montgomery County in Maryland, had a thriving flag football league with dozens of teams for ages below 14. In 2010, the county flag league folded, from lack of interest. There are now three youth tackle-football programs in the county. The leagues are well-run, but their popularity means far more boys being hit on the head than in the recent past. Youth Football USA, a leading national umbrella group for full-pads tackle football for the very young, allows children as young as first grade to play tackle football — if their parents sign a health waiver.

Youth tackle football is expanding because of rising prosperity (private leagues are expensive; ever-more parents can afford the fees), because of boys’ intense desire to play the country’s most popular sport, and because of the desires of parents, mostly men, to engage in Walter Mitty fantasies by running football teams. This makes the men feel great. But what does it do to the children? The American Academy of Pediatrics has said of youth leagues, “The shift from child-oriented goals to adult-oriented goals can negate positive aspects of organized sports.”

Watch this video of 8-year-olds being taught to lead with their helmets. One falls to the ground sobbing. In how many youth leagues around the country are little boys being harmed as adults look on, urging them to hit harder?

Neurology aside, most likely the largest factor in the possible relationship of rising football popularity to declining male college attendance is that teen boys who play the sport spend too much time on football and not enough time on schoolwork. When they don’t get recruited, many may lack the grades, board scores and extracurriculars for regular college admission.

The odds of a high school football player receiving either an NCAA scholarship or an athletic admission letter to college are about 1-in-50. This means the overwhelming majority of those who play high school football receive no college admissions boast from the sport. Yet many let their schoolwork slide in order to be on the team, then find they are not qualified for regular college admission.

The new fad for year-round high school football makes matters worse. For some time, high schools sports sanctioning organizations in states such as Texas and Florida have essentially allowed year-round football, permitting coaches to schedule “optional” workouts and practices in the offseason. Every boy knows that missing “optional” events means little chance of playing in the fall.

Recently, year-round high school football has spread to much of the country, with Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and other states deciding to allow this. In 2010, a Virginia high school coach was forced to resign when he was caught holding “optional” winter sessions, which were then not permitted in Virginia. Today, the same thing would be perfectly fine — the Virginia state sanctioning body for public high schools just voted to allow “football specific events” run by coaches 49 weeks of the year. In Maryland, as recently as 2009, coaches could not run any event where football players were present before July 1. Now coaches can have practices essentially year-round — so long as they are “optional,” meaning mandatory.

Seven-on-seven leagues that essentially are high school football without pads also are proliferating , along with “camps” and “combines.” These events occur nearly year-round. Some seven-on-seven leagues, camps and combines are run by high school coaches, some by promoters, some by hustlers. Many are moneymakers for adults, having little if any relationship to being recruited to play in college. But a 16-year-old boy who receives a letter saying he is “invited” to an “all-star camp” may not understand that.

Year-round football practice, plus seven-on-seven leagues and camps, are a cynical thing for adults to do to children. And remember, high school football players are children. The expansion of youth and high school football into a year-round activity is mainly about making adults feel important, as though they were NFL coaches or general managers.

Traditionally, high school football players struggled in the classroom during the season, then made up ground in the spring: ideally also doing band, theater, the school newspaper or some other extracurricular in the spring. Now, with high school football becoming a year-round activity, the boy who wants to be on the team may have trouble with grades throughout his high school years, while giving up on anything but sports. College admission officers consider extracurriculars quite important. Many boys who spend most of their time and energy during high school on year-round football, then do not get recruited, send to colleges applications listing a low GPA and no extracurriculars. They’re up against girls listing a higher GPA and extracurriculars. Who do you think will be admitted?

There’s a lot going on in our busy world: football is at most one of many factors in rising girls’ success, coupled to declining boys’ presence, in higher education. But if youth and high school football are making their male players less likely, as a group, to reach college, this is a troubling indictment of the sport.

Wow. I certainly agree that there is no conclusive proof at this point, but the mere plausibility of the idea is enough to reinforce my concerns about letting my kids play tackle football any time soon.

We have a (roughly) 60/40 female/male split here at Messiah College, despite a largely male engineering program that is very popular. I’ve often thought that there are lots of reasons that girls tend to do better in school, but this idea could be one of them. Certainly, there are many who believe that schools are not set up well for boys, often backed by psychiatric, psychological, and educational research. Whether this is a major cultural concern could be debated, I suppose, but I don’t see how setting up a culture that favors women is any better than the traditionally male dominated culture that existed well into the 1900s. We should be looking for ways to enable both genders to be successful without forcing women to act “manly” or men to tame themselves to survive in a more effeminate world. How can we encourage each student to be able to operate in ways that enable them to maximize their God-given potential? It seems that football, and the sports dominated male culture in general, may be making this harder. I’m sure there is some effect for female athletes as well, and I would be curious to hear about how they tend to balance that more successfully.

One comment on “TMQ: Is Football Hurting Boys Chances in College?

  1. […] boys and college success, and how football may be contributing to the decline. Read my thoughts here. One of the things I love about Easterbrook is his willingness to offer up reader feedback in […]

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