Participation in scholastic football is declining at a faster rate on Long Island than in the rest of the state and the nation.
The growing concern about head injuries and concussions continues to fuel the drop in participation locally and nationally, but athletic officials and coaches attribute the steeper decline here to the demographic shifts taking place in certain areas of Long Island.
“The biggest thing to me is that demographics on Long Island are changing, and in some communities the demographics are changing drastically,” said Pat Pizzarelli, a longtime football coach and executive director of Section VIII, the governing body of high school sports in Nassau County.
While football is considered the most popular sport in the United States, many newcomers to the area have grown up playing other sports, including soccer, baseball, tennis, volleyball, badminton and cricket. Families new to the area said language can be a barrier to learning a sport that was not played in their country of origin.
Overall, high school students face great demands on their time as they try to balance academic and social pressures. For some, an after-school job takes precedence over playing sports. And the teen years can be fraught because many are challenged as they develop emotionally and intellectually, especially amid the hotbed of social media. All of this can be a recipe for diminished participation in athletics, regardless of cultural background.
The number of high school football players on Long Island has decreased 14.2 percent to 7,429 in 2017-18 from 8,660 in 2015-16, according to statistics from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body of high school sports. That’s more than the 5.5 percent drop in the rest of New York State and the 4.1 percent decrease nationwide in the same time.
Jericho High School had to cancel its varsity football program this season because it did not have enough players. Superintendent Henry Grishman said the demographic shift is affecting pockets of Long Island while the decline in participation in other areas is due mostly to safety concerns.
"If you look at the parts of Long Island where the demographics have not changed, you go into these heavy football districts and their numbers in some cases have started to decline," he said, "but I think the decline is strictly due to health and safety."
Dawn Comstock, a sports epidemiology professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, said, “What we’re seeing today at the high school level is not some unique aspect of parental decision-making that’s just occurring today. It’s the natural evolution of decisions that parents made when their children were younger.”
Comstock said youth football experienced deep participation declines nearly a decade ago when concussions became a national talking point, and now those kids are reaching high school.
Long Island’s middle school football participation figures suggest that high school numbers will continue to drop.
There were 4,282 middle school football players on Long Island in 2017-18, compared with 5,363 for the 2015-16 season — a 20 percent decrease.
'It's important to talk about'
Michael Yoo, the head football coach and a school psychologist at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, grew up in Valley Stream, played varsity football for Valley Stream South High School and later played baseball at SUNY Albany. He has been the Herricks football coach for the past 10 years and said recruiting students to play football has been a struggle.
“It’s tough to make the sell to parents when they hear a lot of stuff about concussions and football when football wasn’t a part of how they grew up,” Yoo said. “I do think the demographics play a significant role. When the conversation just surrounds concussions I think we’re missing the mark.
“It's important to talk about," Yoo said. "We have a very large Asian and Indian population here that didn’t grow up with football. And I say that being Asian myself and having played football. You want to be careful how you say that, but I wouldn’t be truthful if I said anything different. A lot of the kids come from families that didn’t grow up with football. It’s something we’ve had to overcome.”
Yoo, who is of Korean descent, said his decision to play football “changed my life. It developed grit that allowed me to achieve some things that I may not have been able to achieve without it.”
Citing Long Island's “dramatic” shift in demographics in the past decade, Christopher Sellers, a social and behavioral sciences professor at Stony Brook University, said it is typical for first-generation immigrants to stick with the cultures they left behind, including sports. Immigrants are less likely to value football because it wasn’t played in their country, he said.
“There’s sociology and psychology researchers that have looked at first-generation, second-generation and third-generation immigrants,” Sellers said. “They have identified patterns about how each of those generations adapt. The first generation really holds on to their country-of-origin values. The idea of family and tradition become really important for them. That’s part of their identity that they hold on to as a way of not losing who they are. The second generation follows by critiquing the parents as not being adaptable. The third generation says, ‘We need to remember, we need to look back.’
“I can tell you we’ve seen this story before. It’s a fairly repeated pattern in American history.”
While Long Island’s population held steady at about 2.85 million from 2010 through 2016, the Asian population grew 21.8 percent and the number of Hispanics grew 16 percent, according to a Long Island Association analysis in 2017. During that period, the Asian population was leading the pace of growth in Nassau County. Latinos were leading growth in Suffolk County, according to the LIA analysis.
Yoo said it doesn’t matter what a student’s cultural background is, a family that understands the positive aspects of the game is more likely to allow their child to play.
Those families “see the value of their sons participating in it,” Yoo said. “There’s a lot to be gained by it. I hesitate to bring stereotypes into it because that’s not necessarily how we think about it. I think of it as these families not valuing football and the benefits of football because they just didn’t grow up with it.”
Janet Rodriguez, whose son Brian, 17, plays football at Copiague High School, grew up on Long Island after her parents came here from the Dominican Republic. She said people from other countries are likely to gravitate to the sports they know.
“You go to the Dominican Republic, you don’t see anybody playing football,” Rodriguez said. “They’re all playing baseball. It’s tradition. Kids just learn what all of their family members played. When they get together on weekends for barbecues, they’re playing baseball or soccer. Nobody really plays American football.”
Pizzarelli points to mentors such as Yoo for showing how football can have a positive impact on children.
"If Mike Yoo is not there, they wouldn't have football at Herricks," Pizzarelli said. "That program was on the brink of dissolving before he took it over. And he's out there on Saturday mornings doing clinics for the young kids. You need that guy out there in the community making the sell about the things the game of football will do for you, how it builds citizenship, teamwork, sportsmanship. And you need to make football fun. If it's not fun, kids aren't playing in this day and age. There's too many other things out there."
Speaking their language
Copiague head coach Ken Rittenhouse has worried about the future of football at his school for years. He hopes to add a Spanish-speaking coach to help attract new students and teach them the game. Rittenhouse, the coach for 10 years, said some of his players only started playing tackle football recently, which “does present challenges.”
Brian Rodriguez recently finished his second season playing offensive guard and defensive tackle for Copiague. He said a Spanish-speaking coach “would 100 percent help” attract more Hispanic players.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Copiague and speaks English and Spanish, said many of the newer students are more comfortable speaking Spanish. He said he once had to translate a play for a teammate who was confused and didn’t want to speak up.
“The coaching staff is great because they’ll explain things really well,” Rodriguez said. “But the main thing is this is not their first language and they feel uncomfortable asking questions. That’s not a football thing. It’s a life thing.”
Victor Gamarra, 17, who is captain of the Copiague team and has played football since first grade, said he hasn’t had much luck recruiting Hispanics who recently immigrated to the United States.
“It’s kind of hard to convince them because they’ve never done this before,” Gamarra said.
Gamarra, who is a senior and plays running back and safety, said many students don’t have time for football because of school and work commitments.
“They said they had to support their families,” he said. “I got that a lot.”
Southampton High School head coach Bruce Muro said his team uses players from neighboring schools without football teams in Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor just to field a squad.
“There are kids who can’t play sports because they have to work,” said Muro, who teaches life skills. “They’re trying to put food on the table and have a place to live, and obviously that’s more important.”
Numbers tell story
There were 7,429 football players at 120 public schools on Long Island in 2017-18, according to the NYSPHSAA. The year before, there were 8,082 football players at 121 Long Island schools. In 2015-16, the number was 8,660.
In the rest of New York, there were 22,875 players in 2017-18 compared with 23,488 players the year before. In 2015-16, there were 24,201. Nationwide, there were 1,036,842 players in 2017-18, down from 1,057,407 players the year before. In 2015-16, there were 1,080,693 players.
The Long Island and New York football participation data come from annual sport-specific school surveys done by NYSPHSAA. The national football participation numbers are from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national school athletics governing body, which conducts annual sport-specific participation surveys of all 50 states.
Newsday’s analysis of the local, state and national football participation numbers shows a steady decline in traditional 11-player tackle football at every level of play since 2009, when head injuries in football became a national talking point.
That year there were 8,806 players on Long Island, 28,867 in the rest of New York State and 1,109,278 players nationally.
Like Jericho High School, Roslyn High School was forced to cancel its varsity program before this season. East Hampton High School has not been able to field a team for the past two years.
The Great Neck school district has two high schools, each with enrollments that rank among the highest in the county. Yet the interest in football was so low last year the schools had to combine to field a varsity team. Neither school has had a junior-varsity team in years.
“We are a very big immigrant school district,” head coach Ben Krauz said. “We have a lot of Middle Eastern, Asian population.”
Krauz, a middle school physical education teacher in the district, said players are more likely to play soccer or volleyball. He added that he hopes to get more players interested in football so the district can maintain a team.
Great Neck’s quarterback, Donovan Phan, 16, whose parents came to the United States from Vietnam in their early 20s, also wrestles and plays lacrosse. He said many students are focused on academics and don’t have time for sports.
Phan said his parents have always supported his interest in sports, but his extended family often questions why he’s spending so much time away from schoolwork.
“My cousins set high bars in terms of academics, and they always tell me, ‘Why are you doing so many sports? You should just focus on your grades,’” Phan said. “Football, when they see it on TV, they don’t get it. They just think it's violent, like a bunch of people hitting each other.”
Phan runs into the same thing when he tries to recruit players to join the team.
“Most people I talk to about football, when I’m trying to recruit them, they don’t even know what I’m saying and they’d rather not try new things,” he said. Cultural differences “definitely play a huge role in that.”
Joe Huang, 16, plays tight end and linebacker for Great Neck. He was born in Queens and then spent the first five years of his life with his grandparents in China. He moved to Great Neck when he was in third grade.
He said his interest in football began in middle school when he started watching the National Football League. He wanted to play football in eighth grade, but the school didn’t have enough players to field a team.
Huang began playing varsity football as a freshman and recently finished his junior year. He also plays basketball and lacrosse, but he said many students don’t have time for sports because their parents would prefer them to focus on academics.
“A lot of students I talk to, their parents are interfering because they feel football is an obstacle to them getting good grades in school, maybe even a distraction, and that’s the biggest reason,” Huang said.
Huang said more of his friends might be interested in football if they had a role model in the NFL.
“The biggest challenge is just society giving us an example,” he said. “We’re not really seeing a lot of Chinese Americans playing in the NFL.”
Of the 2,257 players in the NFL in 2016, 1.9 percent were Asian/Pacific Islanders while 0.8 percent were Latino, according to University of Central Florida’s The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which publishes annual diversity breakdowns for all of the major sports.
In college football’s Division I, the highest level of the college game, Asian/Pacific Islanders made up 1.7 percent of the players, while Latinos accounted for 2.9 percent.
In October 2014, a Shoreham-Wading River High School junior died hours after a hit to the head during a varsity game. And in August 2017, a rising junior at Sachem High School East died when a wooden log fell on his head during a training drill at an offseason high school football camp.
“Anytime there’s a catastrophic injury, I think it has a big impact on the way we live our lives,” said Robert Zayas, executive director of New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, which oversees school sports in Suffolk, said the decline in football participation is “cyclical.”
Combs points to the state rules that now regulate how much hitting a high school team can do in practice and the still relatively new regulations that mandate a player who suffers a head injury must be removed from play. Combs said football is “the safest it’s probably ever been.”
He added, “Hopefully, the parents will become more aware of the safety associated with football.”
Pizzarelli, who oversees school sports in Nassau, said it might be appropriate for schools that constantly struggle to field teams to ask whether it’s worth continuing to play the sport.
“Maybe it’s time they say they’re not a football school, which is OK, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Not every school has to have football.”