Jared Lankford: Lower participation a harbinger of things to come?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

You don't have to look hard on Friday nights in the Ozarks to know football is still king when it comes to packing fans in the stands -- but for how long?

Schools in the state are taking a good look at their football programs, and the necessity of such programs, for various reasons.

Recently, the East Newton school board voted unanimously to keep its varsity program alive. Due to low numbers -- as few as 17 eligible players at times this season -- some had wanted the district to suspend the varsity program for two years. They would instead play a junior varsity schedule, then reassess the situation.

Low football numbers was a trend eight out of the nine schools in the Big 8 Conference experienced this season.

The only conference member to report an increased roster size was Seneca, but its roster only grew from 33 to 42 players, and still ranked in the bottom third of all state schools in total roster numbers.

The fact that East Newton was even contemplating taking a step back from varsity football is enough to raise red flags for local school districts.

We have already witnessed the bottoming out at Greenfield and McAuley, both of which notified opponents just prior to the 2015 season that they would only play in an 8-man format.

The Patriots have struggled with success on the gridiron the last eight seasons, managing just an 8-72 record for an anemic winning percentage of 10 percent.

Their last winning season was 2007, when they went 8-5.

Some had advocated that the district go the 8-man route, but East Newton's enrollment is too large for that to be a viable option.

So, what has happened in Granby to force a Class 3 school to even consider an unthinkable two-year varsity death penalty?

Everyone -- from coaches, to fans to players themselves -- has a theory as to why the team is struggling for recruits.

To me, several have validity, and most are applicable to every school in the Big 8.

First, you have those athletes who want to specialize in one sport. Because they see their future through a tunnel, they refuse to play anything else. I have had more than one college recruiter tell me that they prefer athletes who play multiple sports to those who specialize.

Also, athletes are getting burned out by the year-in, year-out grind of one sport. Already this year, I have talked to two area all-state athletes who have quit their college teams, citing sports burnout as the culprit.

Secondly, youth feeder systems were not maintained and grown. Even Cassville has seen a dip in the number of youth involved in Mighty Mites. The Maplewood-Richmond Heights school district voted to dissolve its football program this year due to lack of student interest. What is surprising is that the Blue Devils were state quarterfinalists in 2012, they advanced to the semifinals in 2011, and were the Class 2 state runners-up in 2010.

It is no coincidence that the Cubs' semifinal run in 2014 was spearheaded by 22 seniors.

Schools like East Newton should routinely produce 12-17 seniors each year, not three like this season.

Likewise, Cassville should be able to match Monett and graduate 17 to 25 football players every year.

There will always be those parents who complain about coaching and athletes who don't want to play for a losing team. In my opinion, they are part of the problem.

There are outside influences that also have hurt football in general. The game is increasingly coming under attack for its violent nature. You can easily see how the game has changed on the professional level. Newbury High School, outside of Cleveland, canceled its last three games this year due to excessive injuries and fear for player safety.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who fought against efforts by the National Football League to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by professional football players, is now leading a charge to ban not just high school football, but all youth football.

Individually, these items may not seem to be enough to tip the scales against football. But, tied together, they are causing damage to a sport that many love and hold dear.

I am glad that East Newton held onto varsity football, but for how long?

I can imagine there are still some conference athletic directors with their hands on their phones ready to find replacement games.

Only time will tell if the Patriots will survive, or if they are a harbinger of things to come our way.

Jared Lankford is the sports editor of the Cassville Democrat. He can be reached at sports@cassville-democrat.com 417-847-2610

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