Detroit — Youth football is under attack. Parents debate whether to allow their sons to play youth football as the number of concussion-related stories and deaths grow in college football and NFL.
We hear the letters CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) almost as much as NFL. Reports say the number of youth football players is in decline. For instance the University of Detroit Jesuit High was unable to field a junior varsity program this season.
Parents are scared. Programs are in decline.
Lake Orion and Chippewa Valley played in the second game of the Detroit Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University Thursday night. They are both football powers with full squads and youth football programs with waiting lists.
Lake Orion is carrying a record 87 varsity players, about 50 junior varsity players and 65 on the freshman team. Chippewa Valley has 65 varsity players and 175 players in its program.
Lake Orion coach Chris Bell hears the same reports. He is sympathetic with the plights of retired NFL players who are struggling with their lives. And he knows as well as anyone that what happens on the professional level often trickles down to the youth level. But the media onslaught about concussions and CTE bothers him.
He wanted to defend his sport on opening day of the prep season because he believes the sport is important to those who play it and the community that supports it..
"Not to offend you but really I think the media is out of control," Bell said. "It is easy to diagnose a form of depression or any other issues if they played football. Some of their symptoms had nothing to do with football. It is unfair to the game. For everyone struggling with depression there are hundreds of others doing fine. I think it is overblown. There are more concussions in bike riding, girls soccer and skateboarding."
He is right about girls soccer. We have a soccer family that plays for the Bloomfield Hills Force and concussions and ACL injuries are nearly as high in girls soccer as they are in football. However, it is not publicized because football is the king of sports and it is a story driven by the NFL.
The numbers indicate that football is in trouble. But upon closer examination that might not be the case.
Eight years ago about 46,000 youth played prep football in the state of Michigan. Today the number hovers around 40,000. But that does not mean the sport is in danger. Fewer people live in Michigan, for one. Overall, there are 288,000 high school athletes compared to 300,000 eight years ago, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
Former Lions safety Ron Rice did not try to discourage his son from playing football. Xavier Rice is a junior wide receiver at U-D Jesuit. Ron left it up to his son if he wanted to play. The only rule was once he stopped Xavier could not stop unless the sports overwhelmed him.
Rice believes high school football is mostly safe.
"From playing the game it does not get serious and violent until you get to college," Rice said. "You can have injuries across the board but there is nothing like the college or pros. These (high school) kids are still learning to use their bodies in a violent way. You are teaching them how to be physical."
Catholic League director of Athletics Vic Michaels said most of the Catholic League programs are maintaining numbers and he does not see parent panic.
"The game of football is safer than it's ever been," Michaels said. "With the advent of the new equipment and the coaching we have there is no safer time to play high school football."
Football is the ultimate team game and one that bonds communities like Lake Orion, Saline and Rockford.
Bell wants to be sure that it stays intact. Coaches also coach and act as father figures. If a player has problems at home, he often turns to a position coach or head coach for guidance.
For Bell that is one of the important aspects of the game. Bell is focused on every game and playing at Wayne State was important for his program.
But he loves home games under the lights where family, friends, the band and cheerleaders all come together for a common cause.
"This is a social thing and football is very important for our community," Bell said. "It creates an atmosphere that our kids want to be a part of. It is a celebration of our community. That is what it is all about."