(ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK)- The number of Illinois high school students playing football continues to decline.
According to an annual survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the total number of football players in the state has dropped about 17 percent in the past few years from 47,068 to 40,111.
Matt Troha, an assistant executive director with the Illinois High School Association, said injury concerns and new research on concussions play a factor. He said the IHSA has taken steps to make the sport safer.
“Most of them revolve around the practice schedule,” Troha said. “The amount of time you’re allowed to practice, what days you can practice, how often you can wear equipment and go full pads and hit when you are practicing.”
Troha also pointed to shifting enrollment patterns in the city Chicago over the past decade.
“As you look at where those kids have gone, some of it is population loss, but a lot of it is in the influx of small charter schools,” Troha said. “Many of them are very small and don’t field a team. They might be located in an old factory or office building. There’s no gym and there’s no football field behind there. The opportunity to have a team might not be there. We’ve lost a number of teams in Chicago and I think that accounts for a lot of the loss.”
A number of schools in the state have switched to play eight-man football. Troha believes that sport soon could be sanctioned by the organization.
“I think you’ll see an IHSA 8-man playoff system in the next five years or so, give or take,” Troha said. “That’s going to become a realistic option. Most of the states around us already play that. It’s something that realistically is coming sooner rather than later.”
Football still is by far the most popular sport nationwide, with more than one million high school players across the country.
Other sports in the state are seeing a participation boom, including lacrosse, which Troha believes will continue to flourish.
“I think the exciting part is a lot of those programs are co-ops right now, and I think over the next five years you’ll see a lot of them split off into their own teams,” Troha said. “We’re expecting a lot of growth. The Peoria area has several teams popping up, as does the Metro East area. We think it’s going to become more of a statewide sport.”
The overall number of participants in Illinois high school sports was down slightly, at about 340,000 student-athletes. Boys outnumbered girls by 50,000, but Troha said that might not always be the case thanks to the introduction of new sanctioned activities like dance.
“The girls have continued to close that gap,” Troha said. “I think it’s just a reflection of more and more opportunities. I don’t know if it will ever be 50/50, but I think the gap will become smaller each year.”