“I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
These were the words of the San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who last year announced his retirement from professional football at the young age of 24. This decision came after a college career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one season playing professionally for the 49ers. In an interview conducted with ESPN regarding his retirement, Borland mentioned that he wanted to live a long and happy life and to not have to undergo the sorts of issues so many former players go through later in life.
The reason for Borland’s retirement was simple; he didn’t want to have to go through the neurological issues later in life experienced by so many former professional football players. His decision put him amongst the ranks of many young players calling it quits in order to live longer, healthier lives without the excessive battering of the brain that causes neurological issues to occur later in life. Chris Borland is just one of the players that have sacrificed their careers for their health in recent years, with other prominent players like Jerod Mayo, Marshawn Lynch, and Calvin Johnson also hanging up the towel early to prevent further issues down the line.
The suicide of players like Jovan Belcher, the systemic pattern of dementia that plagues former players later in life, and the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, recently featured in the film Concussion, has drawn plenty of attention in recent years to the issue of head trauma experienced in American football. In addition, the complacency and the unwillingness on the part of the NFL to change the rules or safety regulations to combat the issue of head trauma has also not gone unnoticed.
Inevitably, this issue has caused concern for parents across the country. Parents wanting to involve their children in sports now must consider the risk of concussion that their kids will inexorably be subject to when playing football. Thus, slowly there is a shift occurring in participation in soccer relative to football at the high school level.
In the 1991-1992 school year, just over 900,000 male high schoolers competed in football, while about 230,000 high school males competed in soccer. Out of the total of about 3.4 million male high school athletes, the non-rounded figures represent 26.6% and 6.8% of total participants for football and soccer, respectively. In the 2014-2015 school year, however, football represented 23.9% of the total, while soccer represented 9.6% of the total. Football’s share of participants over these years fell 2.7%, while soccer’s share of participants increased 2.8%. In other words, soccer gained proportionally what football lost. These may seems like small changes subject to statistical error, however this trend has been ongoing for quite some time and can be traced for the years between the index years used here.
While soccer is not completely devoid of risk for concussions and other traumatic brain injuries, for many parents and students alike it represents a safer alternative to football. In addition to the perception that soccer is safer than football, professional soccer is on the rise in popularity in the United States.
In the last Women’s World Cup, more Americans watch the game than they did the NBA final or the Stanley Cup final. Also, the women’s team has had massive success on the world stage, winning three of the seven Women’s World Cups and making it to the final in one more. In addition, in 2014 the MLS saw its largest viewership in 17 years, and in recent years the league has had some of its games broadcast in the bastion of soccer fandom, the United Kingdom.
The buzz about soccer players both male and female cannot be ignored either. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for the U.S. national team, has 700,000 followers on Twitter, while other prominent players like Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan exceeding that figure. The goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s team, Hope Solo, has over one million followers, with other female players like Abby Wambach not too far behind.
With its increasing presence as a professional sport and its perception as a safer alternative to football, many high schoolers and their parents are electing to play soccer instead of football. This pattern could prove irreversibly if nothing is done within the football community about the issue of head trauma.