Lose the Grapes of Wrath imagery, and Butner's plight, or some variation of it, is being felt in towns all around the country. Nowhere is high school football hurting more, in fact, than in the Rust Belt and the Northeast, the cradle of the sport. Between 1978 and 1997 the number of players declined in Illinois (by 12.6%), Massachusetts (29.1%), Michigan (18.1%), New Jersey (38.9%), New York (11.5%), Ohio (10.6%) and Pennsylvania (46.8%) as well as in 11 other states, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The population exodus from the Northeast isn't entirely to blame. In New Jersey, for example, interest in playing football between '78 and '97 fell by 15.2% when measured as the percentage of enrolled boys who played the sport.
Schools from Redwood High (enrollment 1,200) in Larkspur, Calif., to Decatur (Ill.) High (enrollment 800) to Garrett Tech (enrollment 750) in Charleston, S.C., have suspended or dropped their varsity football programs in the past three years because of a shortage of players. Even in the most traditional programs, the number of players is declining. Rick Mancini, the coach at Beaver Falls (Pa.) High, Joe Namath's alma mater, says, "When I graduated from here in '72, there were more than 100 players on the team. This year we have 40 players. Part of it is due to population changes, but when you get down to it, the desire of high school students to dedicate themselves to football isn't as great as it was in the '70s."
Nationally the number of participants fell negligibly between 1978 and '97, though if you throw out pigskin-intoxicated Texas, there was an 8.2% slide. While proponents of football point out that U.S. participation has climbed by 3.1% in the 1990s, interest, as defined above, has actually fallen by 10.6%. The drop has been widespread: Between 1990 and '97, interest declined in 38 states (chart, page 104).
The sport isn't hemorrhaging everywhere, of course. Texas had 159,317 players in '97, or one out of every 6.1 players in the nation, while Nebraska was the country's most football-mad state, with 31.8% of its enrolled boys playing the sport. What's more, almost every major American city has at least one school—usually private, usually suburban, such as De La Salle High near San Francisco or Moeller High in suburban Cincinnati—at which football's popularity shows no sign of waning.
Yet there's no mistaking that, generally, football is losing prospective young players and fans. When 12-to-17-year-old boys and girls were asked to name their favorite sport, twice as many said basketball as said football, according to a 1996 ESPN Chilton Sports poll. As far as participation alone is concerned, football (tackle and touch combined) ranks third among 6-to-17-year-olds, behind soccer and basketball, according to a 1997 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey. Only four years earlier football was No. 1.
High school football isn't struggling just in terms of participation. In some places there has also been a decline in fan support—school spirit, if you will. The reasons are many and varied.
•Sports such as basketball, soccer and in-line skating have grown in popularity over the past two decades, siphoning off potential football players.
•More and more athletes are specializing year-round in one sport, coaches say, rather than playing two or three.
•Kids who want to play football aren't able to because their high schools, in a time of contracting budgets, can't afford the sport.
•The rise of women's sports has taken money from football and drawn girls from the football sidelines to their own playing fields.