(First published in the August 15, 2019 issue of City Pages)
The long-standing Wausau Area Youth Football League is no more. That’s just part of the story.
There was a moment in history when the sport of football nearly disappeared from the American landscape. As hard as it is to imagine today, colleges such as Northwestern, Duke and Columbia dropped their football programs in 1906 because people were dying on the gridiron. No, really: 18 people died in 1904 and 19 died in 1905.
Those deaths spurred a revamping of safety rules by U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, which probably saved the modern game. Today, high school and college players are hitting the practice fields now, and the Green Bay Packers continue their pre-season today, Aug. 15, against the Baltimore Ravens.
Certainly the game is far less dangerous than it was 115 years ago, but football finds itself in a new spot of danger. In the past several years as scientists uncover the dangers of concussions and their long-term impacts, participation in football is dropping. That’s due not only to the potential long-term hazards of concussions, but also to the proliferation of other sports at the high school level. Mountain biking and lacrosse, as local examples, are more available today than they were 20 years ago.
The latest part of this changing sport landscape: Wausau Area Youth Football League, which in late July announced it was closing the long-standing tackle football program. The reason: Lack of players.
Fall season registration happens in summer, and this year, WAYFL saw the lowest number of kids sign up probably in its entire 20+-year history. A program that once served more than 350 kids (grades 4–7) saw barely enough registrants this season for two teams and that’s simply not enough overall, says longtime WAYFL president and coach Matt Mayer. The two teams would be essentially playing each other every week, and that just doesn’t make sense for a league, Mayer says.
The change was not sudden. A few years ago, some WAYFL coaches proposed replacing tackle football with non-tackle flag football for the younger players. The idea back then was not only to assuage parental concerns about head injuries, but mostly to foster more long-term interest in football: Bigger kids in youth tackle football are limited to certain positions (mostly blockers) simply because of the physical difference, and many of them become disillusioned with the sport. Flag football allows youngsters to play a variety of positions, thus maintaining their interest. In short, youth flag football might create a better feeder program for high school teams.
Even though WAYFL did make changes, an alternative appeared in 2018, with the launch of the Wausau-based Wisconsin Valley Youth Football league offering flag football for local youth in grades 3–6. This season, in the wake of WAYFL’s closing, the flag league includes 7th graders, according to its Facebook page. The YMCA also runs a long-standing flag football program, as does the D.C. Everest area.
Local football coaches are optimistic about the future of traditional football. Safer heads-up tackle techniques and concussion protocols have made the sport safer, and coaches are taking concussion injuries more seriously than ever.
Plus, as advocates point out, any sport can prove to be injurious.
But to those who love football, the closure of WAYFL is troubling. What will happen to football?
Declining overall participation
In addition to the YMCA’s flag football program pictured here, the new Wisconsin Valley Youth Football league also offers flag play for grades 3–6, this season expanding to include grade 7, following the announcement that WAYFL tackle league is no more.
The number of high school football players has been dropping around the U.S., according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
In 2008, there were 1.113 million high school football players in the U.S. That number has dropped steadily, to 1.039 million in 2017—a decade decline of 6.6% (a trend made even worse when you consider the total number of high school students increased in that period).
In Wisconsin, there were 24,226 high school players in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the NFHS. That’s a 23% drop in participation from the 31,293 players in 2007-08.
A recent Washington Post article cited “cost, single-sport specialization, demographic shifts and injury concerns” among the reasons football participation has continued to drop nationwide. Local observers speaking to City Pages expressed those concerns as well.
One of those concerns is concussions, says Michael Pernsteiner, athletic director at Wausau East High School. “Specifically with football, soccer, hockey — those sports get looked at.” It’s not just at the national and college level either, Pernsteiner says. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), which governs high school sports in Wisconsin, takes concussions seriously, Pernsteiner says.
He also points to more options for student athletes these days. Boys and girls lacrosse didn’t exist at the varsity level 20 years ago, and now mountain biking is available as a fall sport too. “I do think we have to be mindful that there is a limit of resources, whether it’s time, coaches available, and how many kids there are to participate in these sports.”
Concussions can occur in any sport, of course, but football draws the most attention, for a reason. It’s hard hitting, players crash into each other on every play sometimes at high speeds, and most plays end in a player getting tackled to the ground. It’s the repetitive nature of hits to the head that worry researchers.
Not only are concussions misunderstood, but we just don’t know enough about their long-term impacts, says Dr. Linda Bluestein, who owns Wisconsin Integrative Pain Specialists in Weston. Bluestein has studied concussions in dancers — yep, even dancers suffer concussions more frequently than people think. “It isn’t just being dropped,” Bluestein says. “You have this cranium, with something squishy inside.” Fluid inside the skull acts as a lubricant and shock absorber for the brain, but its efficacy is limited when absorbing shock from too much movement, she says. “Any kind of jarring can cause a concussion.”
So it’s not hard to imagine the frequency concussions could occur in a sport like football, hockey and other high impact sports. It doesn’t take getting knocked out to cause a concussion. And in children it might be even more difficult to identify, since children aren’t always great yet at expressing how they feel, Bluestein says. It could be hard to tell if they had symptoms of a concussion.
Of course, one has to draw the line, Bluestein says. A person can’t live life in fear of anything that might cause a concussion. “It’s important to think of the cost-benefit,” Bluestein says.
End of WAYFL and other questions
Matt Mayer, president of the WAYFL league, says he started coaching youth football in 2000, and became league president in 2002. At one point, there were 350-400 kids in the program at its peak, Mayer says; more average years saw around 300 players.
In 2017, the league discussed with high school coaches about switching younger players to flag football. The theory, Mayer says, is that the fear of concussions was keeping kids away from the program. They made the switch to flag football for the 4th and 5th graders, allowing the 6th and 7th graders to still tackle. Mosinee and Newman had partnered with the league, but this year both left.
This year had the lowest numbers signing up the league has had in its more than 20 years. “If you only have 50 kids, you can’t do it,” Mayer says.
It’s not only concussions. Mayer, who is also president of youth baseball and fast-pitch softball leagues, points to the numbers of options and availability for specialization. There are skills camps and travel teams for nearly every sport. There are fewer three-sport student athletes these days; many choose one sport and spend all year working on it.
Mayer, who played college football for UW-Oshkosh and whose son played football for Michigan Tech, says many aren’t aware of how the sport has changed to emphasize safer techniques such as heads-up tackling. “I can tell you in the all the years I’m aware of one young man who suffered a concussion at WAYFL,” Mayer says. And in that particular case, it turned out the boy had also been hit by a pitch playing baseball.
Carson Schemenauer, a former Wausau West football player and current member of the UW-Stevens Point football team as a linebacker, says his time in WAYFL was an important step in getting used to playing tackle football.
Schemenauer will be a junior this year at UWSP, and says most of the people he played with in high school and college played youth football. The ending of WAYFL troubles him.
“I would say it’s one of the best things you can do, is start tackle football that young,” Schemenauer says. “From a contact standpoint, you’re so young that the risk of injury is so little. They’re not big and fast, so you get used to the contact.”
Schemenauer’s time in football has yielded two concussions. There are times when he forgets things and wonders if that’s related to his concussions or just typical forgetfulness. It’s hard to know, he says.
His mother, Becky Woller Hummer, says she’s always been her son’s biggest fan, but gets more and more worried as he works up the football levels. She remembers dropping him off at the first day of football camp at UWSP and they both marveled at how big the players were. “They were huge compared to high school,” Hummer says.
Mayer had done a fine job running the league, says Kevin Grundy, coach for Wausau East Football. Grundy previously has coached at Antigo, Wausau West and Newman, and has seen the universal decline in numbers over the years.
But Grundy is optimistic. He says the high school coaches are working on solution to allow kids to stay involved in football. What that will look like isn’t yet clear. “We want to make the best of it and come up with a positive solution,” Grundy says. “We definitely want to give every kid who wants to play an opportunity.”
Grundy says East High has 90 players total in the football program. That’s lower than last year but, Grundy says there’s still a lot of community support for football.