Chapel Hill High School announced Monday it would not play varsity football this year. Earlier this summer, Ceder Ridge – also in Orange County – announced it would scrap this year's varsity football season as well.
Both schools cited low player turnout as the culprit for the canceled seasons, and both said they would focus instead on the junior varsity squads as a way to rebuild the programs. But even if they field varsity teams again in the future, there is a clear trend around the state: Fewer high school athletes are choosing to play football, and more are choosing other sports.
To be sure, football is still the single most popular sport by far. Nearly twice as many high school athletes play football than then next most popular sport. But the trend is unmistakable, and, if it continues, could lead more schools to drop the sport.
From the 2014-15 school year to the 2016-17 school year, football participation in North Carolina dropped by 2.2 percent. At the same time, soccer participation increased by 5.3 percent and track and field participation increased by 8.7 percent. Basketball has also seen an uptick, though smaller.
Those figures in some ways match national trends, except in baseball. In North Carolina, baseball participation has declined over the past two years, while it has increased nationally in that same time.
Que Tucker is the commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. She says concerns over head injuries isn't the only reason for the decline in football participation. But it is one of the reasons.
"Mamas and daddies are simply saying to their children, well maybe football is not for you and so they're perhaps introducing them earlier to other sports," Tucker said.
Still, she points out that there is more to the trend than just head injuries.
"I think people tend to say it's all about the concussions. … But I think it has to do with the interest level of young people today (being) quite different than it used to be," she said.
For instance, there are many more options available to athletes at a young age today than there used to be.
"Even in the past 15 or 20 years, there are more opportunities to play soccer, … lacrosse has increased in popularity amongst certain groups of students. And track and field – running − is a little more in style now than it used to be," Tucker said. "I used to teach physical education and I almost had to brow beat my young people to get them to go outside and just run a lap around the football field."
Indeed, the biggest benefactor of athletes leaving football and baseball seems to be track and field, which has seen participation increase at a rate more than double the national average.
Canceling a varsity season for one year does not mean a high school has lost football forever. For instance, East Chapel Hill High canceled its varsity football season last year, but will field a team again this year. The school's junior varsity program played last year as scheduled.