Wall Street Journal op-ed: The Leadership Case for Saving High-School Football, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):
For the first time in 30 years, high-school sports participation declined. ... The chief culprit wasn’t a lack of interest in sports. It’s the accelerating rejection of the biggest high-school sport of all: 11-player tackle football.
Last season, football suffered its steepest loss of players in 33 years, according to the NFHS, while its share of total sports participants fell below 13% for the first time on record. ...
[T]he sport lost 31,000 high school players last year, according to the NFHS; its fifth consecutive annual decline. Forty-two states reported net losses, including football hotbeds such as California, Florida and Ohio.
I can’t blame any parent, or child, for abandoning ship. Nobody needs to play football. But I sincerely believe that the sport is worth saving. Football will never be entirely safe. But if the sport’s overseers figure out the right adjustments to make (see an entirely separate column), I have no doubt that its positive influence on kids will continue to outweigh the risks. Football, in my view, is one of the best tools we have for teaching teamwork and leadership.
Consider this: The U.S. has maintained a consistent global edge in business, scientific research, military power and (recent events notwithstanding) functional government. We’ve shown that we’re pretty good at working together. And we’ve sustained this for decades even with schools that trail those in other nations by most measures of academic rigor.
Have you ever wondered why that is?
Most high schools don’t teach “team studies” or “applied leadership.” Traditional classes like social studies, history and civics may touch on those themes, but only in passing. My theory is that American schools haven’t bothered teaching teamwork in classrooms because they didn’t need to. That’s what organized sports are for.
U.S. high schools devote vastly more money, facilities and instructional resources to sports than schools in other nations do. Colleges also spend billions supporting athletes—most of whom will stop competing after graduation. If American exceptionalism exists, is it really possible to disregard this country’s exceptional investment in sports? And can we afford to turn our backs on the nation’s No. 1 sport by participation?
The three qualities that make football teams unique are size, structure and choreography. Every football play is a complex, collaborative ballet in miniature. And within every team there are three distinct subgroups (offense, defense and kicking units) divided into roughly eight different position groups. In other words, joining a football team requires joining three or four teams at once. And all of them need leaders.
Football’s violence is also unique; that’s never been its finest trait. But the physical risk does serve a purpose. And it’s not about “forging character in fire” or any other macho gibberish.
More than any other mainstream activity for kids, football drives home the value of being a competent, loyal, conscientious and selfless teammate. On the football field, the best way to minimize risk is also the surest way to win. You have to do your job. Mistakes aren’t just personally humiliating—they get people hurt. Putting the team’s goals ahead of your own and earning the trust of teammates are valuable skills for navigating the real world.
Lots of team sports teach these virtues, of course, but football does it viscerally. The risk of injury accelerates the learning curve. In the age of helicopter parenting, it’s one of the few supervised environments where kids can learn about risk.
Other Captain Class leadership columns: