The ranks of high school football players on Long Island declined again last year, and have fallen by 17.8% since 2015 amid concerns about head trauma.
And a grieving father, Frank Cutinella, whose son, Tom, died in 2014 after a hit to the head when he played for Shoreham-Wading River High School, said the trend is predictable.
“Not enough is being done and that is why the participation is down in tackle football,” he said. “The stakeholders at the high school level throughout the country need to get together and acknowledge that there is a problem.”
Cutinella said parents have been steering their children away from football in recent years because so much more is known about the link between the game and head injuries. If Cutinella had the same information when Tom started playing, he said he probably would have made a different choice.
“I don’t think parents are going to make the same mistake I made when I introduced my son to football,” Cutinella said. “With all of the knowledge and awareness that parents have now, they will not allow their kids to play tackle anymore.”
Cutinella said he wants kids to be able to play high school football, but he said the game needs to add rules to help protect players, such as automatically ejecting anyone who hits a defenseless player above the shoulders. He also said that administrators need to put a greater emphasis on making sure that rules are enforced on the field. Until then, Cutinella said he expects the number of high school players to continue to decrease.
“Should we get rid of high school football? No. I care about football because my son loved football,” Cutinella said.
Cutinella’s comments come in response to the latest New York State school sports participation study, which shows there were 7,117 football players at Long Island high schools during the 2018 season. That’s down from 7,429 in 2017, 8,082 in 2016 and 8,660 in 2015.
Long Island schools have experienced a 17.8% decline in high school football players since 2015, while schools across the country are down 6.9% over the same time frame, per the latest national study.
Long Island school administrators, athletic officials and football coaches said parents’ concerns over head trauma remain a leading cause for the decline in players here, but they also insist there are other significant issues at play.
The officials said declining enrollments and demographic changes in many districts and the rise of sport specialization — in which high school students focus on playing one sport year-round in hopes of landing a collegiate scholarship — has also led to football’s declining numbers.
Pat Pizzarelli, who oversees high school sports in Nassau County, said head trauma concerns likely remain the top reason for the declining numbers, among all the others. Tom Combs, who oversees high school sports in Suffolk County, said, “There are a lot of factors, and obviously safety is one, but I honestly don’t think that’s as major of a factor anymore as everything else.”
Cutinella referred to the reasons for the decline in participation besides safety as “excuses.”
Struggles to field a team
The Great Neck school district does not have a high school varsity football team for the first time since 1924, according to Newsday records. The district has two high schools and had to combine to form a team for the past two seasons. This year the district did not have enough players for either a varsity or junior varsity team.
“We had 25 kids signed up, but we certainly didn’t have 25 at practice every day,” said David Zawatson, the district’s athletic director. “We came to the conclusion we weren’t going to be able to field even a JV team that would be something that’s safe and appropriate and competitive in any sense of the word.”
East Hampton High School does not have a varsity team for the third straight season. Jericho High School and Roslyn High School abandoned their varsity football programs two years ago. All three schools have junior varsity teams this season and are hoping to have a varsity team in the coming years.
Administrators and coaches stressed the importance of an established youth program in the community, which they said is essential for high schools because it serves as a feeder program. Without a youth program, schools struggle to attract students to play when they reach high school. Those who are interested in playing could be learning the game for the first time.
Zawatson was an offensive guard in the NFL from 1989 to 1991 for three teams, including the Jets in 1990. He said the lack of a youth program in Great Neck is a hindrance to its efforts to sustain a high school football program. He said the middle school program has survived but struggles to compete because many of the players are inexperienced.
“Ultimately, if the people who reside in Great Neck want to have a reasonably vibrant football program, they would probably have to invest their time and effort in the youth level first in order to build that thing back up,” he said.
Matt McLees, the Nassau County football coordinator, said the decline is most evident in the districts that have historically struggled with numbers.
“I think it’s coming down to whether a community is in favor of having football,” said McLees, who is athletic director of the Sewanhaka district . “If they want to support it and grow the program, they can do it. And if the community is not in favor of it, then the kids are going to do something else. And that’s what’s happening.”
Rob Perpall, Seaford’s longtime coach, said his football program hasn’t struggled with numbers despite being a smaller district because so many players grow up taking part in their youth football program.
“The places with the strong youth programs, those are going to be the places that weather this,” he said.
Decline leveling off?
Head trauma in football became a national talking point in 2009 after the National Football League acknowledged for the first time that concussions can lead to long-term health problems. The admission came after several high-profile former NFL players said they were struggling with dementia and cognitive declines. Studies on the brains of recently deceased players, some of whom committed suicide, showed the players had CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a disease caused by repeated head injuries.
Experts said the steady decline of high school football players nationwide — nearly 10 percent over the last decade — is largely the result of parents years ago having decided to not let their young children play football, and now those kids are reaching high school.
Long Island football coaches said they have reason to hope the downward trend could be leveling off. The number of middle school football players last year was 4,249, down less than 1% from 4,282 in 2017. The year before, there was a 13.3% drop.
East Islip coach Sal J. Ciampi has a son in seventh grade and he said he noticed several players came back to football in middle school after leaving the sport during their younger years.
“Is there an issue with the concussion part of it? No doubt. It’s part of what’s going on, in football and all sports,” he said. “I think what happened was that first handful of years, like anything else, people reacted.”
In an effort to save football, some districts upstate have elected to play a truncated version of tackle football with only eight players on each side of the ball as opposed to the traditional 11.
Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said there are 36 teams competing in eight-player football this year, up from 30 a year ago and seven in 2017.
Joe Vasile-Cozzo, athletic director at East Hampton, is in favor of bringing an eight-player high school football league to Long Island because his school has not been able to field a varsity team since 2016.
But other schools are not ready to make that leap, choosing instead to try to hold onto the game in its current form as long as possible.
“In my heart of hearts,” Combs said, “I don’t think the decline is going to continue and I don’t think it’s as drastic as people say.”
“I hope Long Island high school football doesn’t have another devastating decline in enrollment,” he said, referring to another three-year stretch in which the number of players decreases by nearly 20 percent. “Because it would be devastating to the sport.
“And I don’t want to see that.”