A question of size: Fewer football participants compounds injury concerns
The size differences on Siuslaw High’s team are dramatic, from freshmen to a senior being recruited to play Division 1 football. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
To prepare for his Siuslaw football team’s Sept. 29 game against powerhouse rival North Bend, coach Jamin Pool scanned rosters and defined a strategy based on some scary numbers.
A forfeit, he concluded, was the best means of protecting his younger and smaller players from getting hurt. His roster, depleted by injury, comprised mostly freshmen and sophomores, some of them half the size of their older opponents.
He told administrators that Siuslaw (in Florence, on the Oregon coast) should take the loss rather than risk injury, and they concurred.
Siuslaw is not alone. The number of students playing football in Oregon has decreased by more than 10 percent since 2008, according to Oregon School Activities Association data. That dwindling number, coupled with newer data on long-term risks from concussion and other injuries, has forced coaches and administrators into some tough decisions.
A lack of players leads to younger and less-experienced students playing at the varsity level, creating larger mismatches in development and size.
OSAA Assistant Executive Director Brad Garrett says he has seen more forfeits in the past five years than in the previous 12, primarily for player safety.
Concerns about long-term effects from head injuries have cut into football participation, and Oregon has taken steps to mitigate concussion-related harm. Oregon has changed rules to reduce some collisions and it is the first state to require that all coaches are certified by Heads Up Football, an annual safety training program, according to Garrett.
Head injuries are not the only concern, though.
The bones and muscles of younger players are still developing, putting them at higher risk of serious injuries than more developed players, according to Dennis Crawford, director of sports medicine for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Oregon Health & Science University. Injuries such as dislocated joints and damaged ligaments can have lifelong consequences.
Age and experience are significant factors with injury, Crawford said. Players new to a sport have a high potential for injury because they may not be as aware of the dangers around them, he said. Poorer coordination can also be a factor in injury, he said.
Siuslaw administrators and coaches began talking about their team’s potential for injury long before the forfeit. Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak praised Pool’s foresight.
“The coach made a good, thoughtful decision,” Grzeskowiak said. “The kids, the parents and the program were happy with the decision.”
The school board also appreciated the process. Administrators alerted School Board Chair Jon Barnett, and he was ready when community members asked questions.
“It made perfect sense,” Barnett said. “From a safety standpoint, that seemed like the only logical move.”
Schools across Oregon are facing similar decisions.
For a playoff game against Jesuit last year, South Eugene High School had six linemen out with injuries and only freshmen as backups. Not only were the linemen at risk of injury, but the running backs they were protecting could have been hurt too. South Eugene forfeited.
“It just came down to numbers,” said Dave Hancock, South Eugene athletic director. South Eugene players would be facing players 50 to 85 pounds heavier, and “there’s a collision that’s not going to end well for the Volkswagen getting hit by the tank.”
“It would have been a negligent decision to put them on the field,” he said.
Hancock said sports classifications are a problem when they don’t reflect participation. South Eugene has about 1,500 students, but only 33 students on its varsity team, including freshmen and sophomores. It has no freshman or junior varsity team.
The nature of football makes mismatches different from other sports, Hancock said. A short-handed and short-statured basketball team could play and get beat by 80 points without lasting harm.
“You can overcome the disappointment or humiliation of getting beat 60-0 in football,” he said. “That isn’t the issue. In this sport, it is about injury.”
Oregon is in the middle of a reclassification for schools, and OSAA has a panel looking at classifying football separate from other sports. Some people in Oregon would like to see it based in some way on actual participation.
Garrett stresses that OSAA is always looking for ways to keep students safer, from rules changes to coach training. Schools communicate before games to set up contingencies to mitigate mismatches, including using second- or third-string players sooner, keeping the clock running to shorten games and even playing shortened quarters.
High school football teams have taken a lot of the contact out of practices. Siuslaw coach Jamin Pool uses a Tackle Wheel for one drill. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
“The way the world sees football is changing,” said Siuslaw Principal Kerri Tatum. She said the school did not get one phone call or email from parents complaining about the school forfeiting. There were some heated comments on Facebook, but when coaches and administrators explained the situation, even those died down.
Parents worried about the message forfeiting sent to the students, perhaps even hurting their confidence by being told they weren’t good enough. Coaches countered that the real confidence killer is being thrown into a situation without adequate preparation.
Siuslaw’s junior varsity squad beat North Bend. The coaches want their younger players to face appropriate competition. They can’t play in those games if they are playing varsity.
“Sending a young kid out to get chewed up, that may end that opportunity before they even get a chance to develop,” Grzeskowiak said.
Siuslaw’s players understood, even if they weren’t entirely happy about it.
“I’m glad we forfeited, but I really want to play,” said senior Patrick Hill, who is playing football for the first time.
Jayden Johnson, a freshman who was out with an injury, took the long view.
“It is better for us to have more players for the next game than lose them,” he said.
Administrators are trying to find the balance between student safety and offering the life lessons and community and school spirit associated with football.
Klamath County School Board Chair John Rademacher summed up what many administrators, coaches and community members expressed.
“It’s a great game. I would hate to lose it,” he said. “We’ve got to look at student safety because pretty soon there won’t be a game if we don’t.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Journalism project seeks concussion data from schools
InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism studio, is partnering with Pamplin Media Group and the University of Oregon to examine concussions in Oregon sport.
InvestigateWest has sent out records requests to Oregon school districts to find out statistics on concussions, how schools train coaches about concussions, and procedures for returning students to play. InvestigateWest says it wants to create a database on youth sports concussions in all sports, male and female. Although football is often the focus of concussion discussions, head injuries occur in many youth sports.