Pending approval by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, Dracut High will indeed play football this season.
For a while last week, it didn’t seem likely. That was before high-school administrators came up with a plan to put a team on the field despite its low numbers.
In a joint statement released Sept. 1, Dracut Athletic Director Paula Chausse and Principal Richard Manley announced the school had submitted an application to the MIAA to form a one-year cooperative team with Innovation Academy Charter School of Tyngsboro.
“While final approval is forthcoming, we have no reason to believe there will be any difficulties,” the statement read. “This arrangement will provide advantages to our school and to our student-athletes. Our Middies football team will continue to play at Beaudry Field at Dracut High School in Middie Blue in front of our community.”
Dracut initially enrolled 28 football players for the upcoming season, a barely sufficient roster to field a team. However, as of last Thursday, that number was reduced to 20, with only 17 physically cleared to play.
Innovation Academy doesn’t have a football team, but 13-15 students expressed interest in playing football when an initial merger was proposed.
The announcement capped a rollercoaster week of emotions for players, parents and fans.
Players were first notified by school administrators on Aug. 29 that their season was in serious jeopardy, prompting parents Jenn Wakefield and Neala Richardson into action. The football moms helped organize a rally Thursday in front of the high school. The assembly drew over 150 people, including players from Dracut Pop Warner.
The Middies’ once proud football program has fallen on hard times the last few seasons. A member of the highly competitive Merrimack Valley Conference, they finished 2-10 last year, and have gone 13-33 over the last five seasons.
Even with the MIAA’s approval, Dracut’s combined team will need time to jell, necessitating changes to its schedule, slated to begin Friday night against North Andover.
Because of that uncertainty, league rival Lowell has opted to play Milford instead of Dracut on Oct. 13.
School districts teaming up to play sports happens occasionally, especially in ice hockey, which involves unique demands of time and financial commitment.
Whether Dracut High football’s 11th-hour rescue plan allows the school to play for time and build a solid foundation for future years remains to be seen.
But its situation aligns with a nationwide decline in football participation.
As reported by US News and World Report earlier this year, 11-player tackle football continued to trend upward until the 2009-10 academic year, when enrollment began to wane, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Athletics Participation Survey.
The shift corresponded with heightened public awareness in 2009 regarding head injuries among former professional football players, including a congressional hearing featuring NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in front of the House Judiciary Committee, and subsequent adjustments to league rules.
So, it’s no coincidence that much of the concern over both amateur and professional football player safety surrounds head injuries. A study published in 2018 by The Journal of Pediatrics identified a concussion incidence rate of 5.1% per season among youth football participants ages 5 to 14, with half of players who suffered concussions still symptomatic three weeks later.
Those concerns have undoubtedly contributed to football’s declining numbers.
The latest survey release from the NFHS – the first since 2018-19 – shows that the 2021-22 school year was the first on record with fewer than a million players participating in 11-player high school football since the turn of the century. The reported total of 976,886 participants represents a 12.2% decrease from its 2008-09 peak.
And as 11-player tackle football popularity has decreased, participation on smaller teams has increased. In 2021-22, around 8,500 more high-schoolers played on teams of either six, eight or nine players than in 2008-09.
Trends among younger players point to even less enthusiasm for the traditional 11-team concept.
According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, younger ages have seen an even steeper decline in tackle football participation.
Based on data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the institute’s State of Play report shows that from 2020 to 2021, participation in tackle football for kids ages 6 to 12 declined nearly 18%.
Since 2016, the institute says, tackle football participation rates for this age group have decreased 29%, while flag football rates have gone up 15%, with flag football players exceeding tackle football players by more than 300,000 in 2021.
Dracut certainly won’t be the last team in our area to face this crossroads. Based on those youth football statistics, fewer youngsters will enter high school intending to play under those Friday Night lights.
That will either force high schools – as Dracut did – to form teams with charter schools or other communities, or simply abandon the sport entirely.
Absent some dramatic rule changes designed to promote further player safety, that tough decision will become a reality.