Time for a new game plan for covering high school football

February 3, 2017

The question “Would you let your son play football?” is now a staple of Super Bowl media day, and of just about every substantive interview with a current or former NFL player. (Bo Jackson says “no.”)

The game on Sunday will not be a safe space from talk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. If a linebacker comes across the middle and lays a receiver out on the turf, the game coverage will undoubtedly touch on the condition of the receiver’s brain, whether and how much the linebacker should be penalized, and perhaps, if the hit is big enough, what this violence means for the NFL as a business and an American institution.

Broadcasters and reporters covering the NFL are now quasi-experts in brain trauma; it’s part of the modern beat. NFL coverage is CTE coverage.

And yet, this attitude hasn’t trickled down to lower levels of football coverage. Around 1 million teenagers play high school football in the US. There is no reason to think the sport is any less dangerous for them than it is for the professionals. In fact, some studies have suggested it could be more dangerous, due to the developing nature of the adolescent brain.

Editors are aware of the dangers of high school football. I spoke with four current or former newspaper editors for this article, and all said they are thinking about these issues. All of them have some level of concern about the future of high school football and the way the sport is covered. But there doesn’t seem to be any momentum for making big changes in coverage.

On any given fall Friday, there are thousands of high school football games across the country, and most of them get some type of media coverage, usually from the local newspaper or news website. In a town without professional or major college teams, high school teams are the nexus of local sports coverage. For four months of the year, that means football.

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With everything we know about the dangers of football, it’s past time for local news editors and program directors to rethink their high school coverage. It’s not that local news outlets don’t do important reporting about the dangers of high school football. They do. It’s that game coverage is typically divorced from this type of smart analysis. The games are also presented as major news, which is out of all proportion to the fact that the players are children who put their brains at risk every time they step on the field.

Traditional game coverage—the kind that dominates Friday night websites and Saturday morning sports sections and helps make a local hero of the local quarterback—might not do any harm to these kids’ long-term mental health prospects, but it certainly doesn’t do any good.

“Are people getting sick from football? That’s a question probably not enough editors ask themselves. If you’re supporting high school football, is that like supporting smoking?” says Tim Gallagher, a retired newspaper editor and publisher who now owns a public relations firm in Southern California. Gallagher was editor of the Ventura County Star from 1995 to 2004 and publisher from 2004 to 2007. (Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at the Star from 2005 to 2010.)

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Editors have a few options. They could, of course, stop covering high school football altogether, or run only box scores. This would be a strong stand, but probably not a wise one. Players, coaches, parents, and quite a few readers would be furious, and that heat would overwhelm any light shed on the risks of football.

There are a few smaller steps that any news organization could and should take immediately. They can train their prep sports reporters and editors so they’re as well-versed as NFL reporters are on the topic of CTE; they can make player safety a priority in day-to-day coverage by, say, monitoring how much time a player misses after a blow to the head; and they can tone down their coverage, by reporting on fewer games and taking game stories out of the above-the-fold, top-of-the-website positions.

“Beyond the health thing, I’ve always wondered if it’s even healthy, at the high school level, to shine a spotlight on people who aren’t mature enough to have…perspective,” says Dale Phelps, managing editor of the Tacoma News-Tribune and a former sports reporter and editor.

“If you look at the amount of space devoted to high school sports, compared to coverage of your state legislature, what’s the ratio?” Gallagher asks. “Twelve to one? Fifteen to one?”

Some readers wouldn’t like it if a local newspaper or broadcast station played down its high school coverage. There would be angry phone calls. But perhaps only a few.

“There is an audience, but I’m not sure that many people are buying a subscription because of your high school football coverage,” says Tim Archuleta, the editor of the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a former editor of the San Angelo Standard-Times, in football-mad West Texas.

Gallagher says that in his years as an editor, in Albuquerque and Ventura County, he met many people who told him, “I used to take your paper, but then my son graduated from high school,” and stopped playing football or basketball.

“Sports is a money-loser in almost every newspaper,” he adds. “In most local sports sections, you hardly see any advertising, compared to the rest of the paper.”

This is obviously not true everywhere. “The Odessa American probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for high school football,” says Cameron Hollway, deputy sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, referring to the paper that covers the town featured in the book Friday Night Lights. “The San Angelo Times, they do a 100-page-plus special section each fall, and it’s chock full of ads. In St. Louis, we lose money on it (high school football coverage).”

Newspapers, despite their decline in profitability and prestige, are still uniquely positioned to provide moral leadership on an issue like this. There are three reasons they’re unlikely to do so. The first is inertia. The second is the aforementioned wave of angry phone calls. The third, and most important, is the state of the news business. Everyone in a newsroom has pressing concerns beyond whether high school football players are being maimed for entertainment purposes. High school football might be a slowly dying institution, but local newspapers are a quickly dying one.

“A better long-term outlook than local newspapers” isn’t a high bar, though. If high school football isn’t in crisis today, it’s at least moving in that direction.

Participation in youth football has declined dramatically since 2009, the year the CTE story really broke. The number of children ages 6-14 playing tackle football dropped by 27.7 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to a Vocativ review of USA Football surveys. On Tuesday, USA Football, the NFL-backed governing body for youth football, announced a new set of rules meant to reduce collisions and allay parents’ concerns about the safety of youth football.

So far, high school participation has dropped more modestly—a decline of about 2.5 percent from 2008 to 2014, according to the National Federal of State High School Associations. high school football could continue to shrink slowly. Or, it could disappear. When the NFL faced a major lawsuit from former players over brain trauma, it paid a settlement worth as much as $1 billion. High schools don’t have $1 billion.

“It either is going to become a safer game, or it’s going to be litigated out of existence,” Hollway said.

In the past 14 months, there have been calls to ban high school football from, among other people, Bennet Omalu, the groundbreaking CTE researcher, in The New York Times; two doctors in an American Journal of Bioethics editorial; and a school-board candidate in Las Vegas, whose quixotic campaign was featured in Vice Sports.

In November, HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel aired a segment on youth and high school football, focused on the 17 boys who had died over the previous two years from on-field blows to the head. It’s a stunning tally, but it doesn’t include cases like that of Zac Easter, of Indianola, Iowa. He died in 2015, at age 24, six years after his last high school football game.

Easter sustained numerous concussions during his football career, and suffered for years from depression, headaches, suicidal thoughts, and other CTE symptoms. On December 19, 2015, he shot himself in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun. He left a journal he called “Concussions: My Silent Struggle,” with instructions to his family to send his brain to Omalu’s lab. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed with a post-mortem brain examination.

Easter’s story was told in a widely read January feature in GQ magazine called “The Concussion Diaries,” by freelancer and former Des Moines Register reporter Reid Forgrave. The people in Zac Easter’s life, including his football-loving family and his high school coach, know that football killed him. They read the pages of  Easter’s journal that said he wished he’d never played. Yet even they aren’t ready to give up on the sport.

The high school coach, Eric Kluver, “still believes in football,” Forgrave writes. Months after attending Easter’s funeral, he leads the Indianola High School varsity team into a new season.

“What they say, and what a large swath of America is saying, is that there are clearly bad things that happen from football, and we need to work to make it as safe as we can, but the good of this sport outweighs the bad,” Forgrave says. “Millions of adolescent boys learn teamwork and camaraderie from football.…People talk about it as some of the best times of their lives.”

Forgrave has been a football fan since the third grade, inheriting a love for the Cleveland Browns from his uncle, despite growing up in Pittsburgh.

“In recent years, but especially after writing that story, I feel very conflicted, very hypocritical about it,” he says. “I have two sons, ages 4 and 5 months, and I’m not going to let them play football.…I’ve certainly thought about it long and hard. It’s just not worth the risk.”

Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.