More and more school districts are canceling their high football programs due to safety concerns. Amid reports about the effects of concussions and two recent deaths of high school football players, some schools are saying the sport is not worth the risk.
After a rash of injuries and low student participation in the football program at Missouri's Maplewood Richmond Heights High School, the school will be celebrating its annual homecoming without football - but there will be a soccer game.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Nelson Mitten, president of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School Board, about the decision to cancel the football program.
Interview Highlights: Nelson Mitten
How tough was the decision to get rid of football?
"Well it was very hard. Less than five years ago, we were in the state championship. So it was extremely difficult to make this decision. But by the same token, when you simply don't have the student interest there, to some degree, the decision is dictated by that."
Did other schools contact you about this decision?
"Not really. We did a survey of other schools of our size within the state and found out that only one other school of our size had both a football and a soccer program for boys, both of which are in the fall here. But other than that, we really did not have other schools contact us about the decision."
On the student-alumni reaction
"I think they're upset and obviously concerned about it, but when you don't have the numbers and the likelihood of injury is great, I think they are understanding of that fact. The majority of students that were interested in playing varsity [athletics] were freshmen and sophomores who did not have a whole lot of experience. And therefore, we were going to be sending them out there as a varsity team against opponents that were physically larger, as well as more skilled. And when you have that sort of situation, that's just ripe for significant injuries."
On the recent deaths of high school football players
"Well obviously deaths are the extreme, they do happen occasionally and it is upsetting to see that. And from our perspective though, what we were seeing were permanent injuries. We had a significant ACL tear. We had a couple of major concussions on our players and we don't know the long-term effects of those. And I think, you know, some people are focusing on 'well this is just football.' But I think any sort of sport that might have those sorts of injuries needs to be analyzed and make sure that you're providing a safe and appropriate environment for our children to enjoy sports."
Are you hearing from any parents that say football is an integral part of the town?
"Surprisingly, no. I've only heard from a couple of parents in informal conversations that were concerned about that. I urged them to come to the board and speak to us about it – none of them came. We have also heard some rumblings from alumni because our high school does have a long tradition of good high school football teams. However, I believe that anyone that really analyzes the situation and looks at the fact that the students are pretty much voting with their feet, and when the team you do field is just kind of undersized and getting injured, you know, it's not appropriate to continue with that sort of sport."
On the new plans for homecoming
"This event has caused us to refocus our entire homecoming. We are going to have a homecoming game, however, it's going to be a soccer game. And we are actually beefing up activities and doing things knowing that the community wants this sort of homecoming celebration and knowing that we can still provide that sort of celebration around a sport other than football - one that is being celebrated. For example, our soccer team is now ranked one of the top 10 in the area. And so, we're just changing the sport for the game. We're not changing homecoming."
- Nelson Mitten, president of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School Board in Missouri. He is also an attorney.
This segment aired on September 30, 2015.