•Unlike 20 years ago, kids can get a football rush from video games without ever stepping onto a field.
The NFL, naturally, sees all this and worries. That's why it hired a former MTV executive as president of NFL Properties four years ago to repackage football as a "cool" sport for fans, especially kids and women. The league is just as concerned, however, about the financial crunch facing high school athletic departments. As part of this year's extension of its collective bargaining agreement, the league created the NFL Youth Football Fund, which will spend $100 million over the next eight years to promote the sport at the youth and high school levels.
"We're not in dire straits, but if we project down the road 15 years, we could be in trouble," says Gene Washington, the NFL's director of football operations. "The worst-case scenario is that participation gets to be very narrow, that in a city with 10 schools, only five are playing football. That's our future labor pool, and if that shrinks, it's going to affect us."
Nor has the trend escaped the notice of college football coaches. "I'm seeing fewer kids out for high school football in our state, and that scares me," says Don Nehlen, the coach at West Virginia. "I think everyone should be concerned. We have rural counties where a kid needs to pay $285 to play, and mom and dad are telling him they don't have enough money."
Yet these changes in high school football affect far more than just the future of the college and professional games. They raise questions about our kids, our towns, our cities. Why is the sport less popular than it used to be? What does this mean for the future? And what is its greater significance in a country where Friday-night football has been a cherished part of our culture?
The high school pep rally is one of America's most bizarre traditions. All day long students are virtually shackled—interrogated about hall passes, told by their teachers to keep quiet during class. Then, suddenly, they're summoned to an auditorium where a middle-aged man is screaming like a revival preacher, encouraging them to act like lunatics.
"Do I see some people sitting down at my pep rally?" booms Harold Cole, the athletic director at Coral Gables (Fla.) High, on a Friday afternoon in October. "No one sits down at my pep rally!"
Cole has this drill down cold. He has been at Gables for 25 years, the past 15 as the AD, and in 1964 he was a member of the school's national champion football team. (Gables won four such mythical titles between '64 and '69.) Cole has been around so long that he remembers the time in '65 when 48,000 people turned out at the Orange Bowl for the Gables-Miami High football game.
"All right!" Cole bellows into the microphone. "Let me hear it from those people who plan on coming to the game tonight!"
The cheerleaders cheer. The Gablettes dance team cheers. The students cheer. It's a classic display of school spirit, but it is something else, too: a handsomely packaged lie. That game attended by 48,000 in '65? There were 800 at the Gables-Miami High game last year. Gables's enrollment—3,400—is virtually the same now as it was in '65. "They'll all yell and scream at the pep rally," Cole says afterward, "and only a few hundred kids will show up at the game. You watch. On Monday morning 70% of them won't know whether we won or lost."