Idaho’s isolation allows it to avoid, or at least delay, the effects of many national trends. But one trend the state can’t outrun is the decline of high school football, a lesson some of its largest schools are learning this fall.
Four Treasure Valley 5A or 4A programs (Boise, Caldwell, Columbia and Ridgevue) can’t field a junior varsity team this year. And another three (Timberline, Emmett and Skyview) sit on the brink, a handful of key injuries or departures away from canceling their JV seasons as well.
Low turnout used to affect only Idaho’s small, rural schools. But football’s well-documented struggles are now hitting schools with 1,000 to 2,000 students roaming the halls.
Participation in the state’s most popular sport has fallen 14 percent since 2001, when football hit its peak with 8,681 players in the state. Last fall, 7,462 suited up for their school’s squad — the fewest since 1986, according to data assembled by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
And based on the early signs, Idaho will set another new low this fall.
Booms in the country’s fastest-growing state have masked much of the decline. Idaho has added 33,090 high school students since 1986, a 56 percent increase. Factor in the state’s increasing enrollment numbers, and the drop-off looks even bleaker.
Back in 2001, 11.6 percent of Idaho’s high school students (boys and girls) played football. Last fall, just 8.1 percent did, a 30 percent drop in the participation rate.
“It’s something that’s alarming,” Columbia Athletic Director Randy Potter said.
WHY IS FOOTBALL DECLINING?
A stray school or two incapable of fielding all three teams (varsity, junior, freshman) is nothing new, especially at long-struggling programs like Boise and Caldwell.
But this year is something new, both with the volume of schools desperate for players and in context of the Treasure Valley’s recent history.
Payette forfeited its entire conference schedule last fall, an unheard-of step for a 3A program. Then Nampa Christian declined a 2A playoff bid due to an injury-riddled roster, another unheard-of step.
“Everybody is losing numbers,” Boise coach Jerry O’Mahony said, listing some of the state’s powerhouse programs. “But it doesn’t show up in programs like theirs. In programs like ours and Timberline, it has an effect.”
Football diehards can point the finger at a number of culprits, from safety concerns to one-sport specialization to rising costs to more options for students’ time and attention.
Concussions often suck all the oxygen out of any football debate. But even if football became the country’s safest sport tomorrow, it wouldn’t remove all the other factors drawing away athletes.
Ridgevue, a sparkling, 4-year-old school on the north side of Nampa, had to forfeit five of its eight freshman games last year. Its turnout didn’t improve much in the offseason, leading the Warhawks to bail on a junior varsity team this year.
But Ridgevue Athletic Director Mike Cummings said he had a dozen students approach him at the school’s fall sports meeting asking if Ridgevue had an e-sports team. Another group asked about a BMX team.
“I have a robotics club now at our school,” Nampa Christian coach Cassidy Kotte said. “I have kids competing in robotics, and it’s great. But there are so many options for kids now. You just have to compete, and a lot of traditional sports are somewhat expensive.”
WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
Football remains the state’s and the country’s most popular high school sport. But it stands at a crossroad.
As much as purists decry the death of football from their glory days, they have a choice: Change or watch the sport wither.
No silver bullet exists. But everything needs to be on the table.
The athletic directors for the 5A and 4A Southern Idaho Conference met this week, proposing to turn their freshman-only teams into joint freshman and sophomore teams, like the ones used in basketball, volleyball and other sports.
That would give football coaches more flexibility to manage their rosters. For example, they could send a few undersized linemen down to the freshman team while pulling up a couple wide receivers to junior varsity to cover deficiencies on both teams.
Put that rule change into effect immediately. Anything helps when staring down forfeits. But it also feels like nibbling around the edges, like many of the proposed solutions for football.
No miracle helmet is on the way. Improved tackling techniques can only help so much. And more and more new activities will pull students into their orbit.
The sport needs bold action, like the invention of the forward pass that saved the game from banishment in 1906. Idaho can’t reinvent the game by itself, but it can start asking the hard questions and look at structural changes inside its borders.
Does every 5A and 4A school need a varsity, junior varsity and freshman team?
Would a classification model based on wins and losses instead of enrollment help, creating parity and ending the death spiral for losing programs?
Should small-town programs join forces to create competitive and deeper teams?
Would a 6-man football league benefit Idaho’s smallest schools?
Do programs need to ask less of their players, allowing them more time to try other activities?
None of these questions comes with an easy answer. But change is already here, and more is on the way.
Idaho’s football leaders can have a say in what that change will look like. Or they can sit back and let it wash over them.
MOUNTAIN VIEW AT CAPITAL, 7 P.M. FRIDAY AT DONA LARSEN PARK
Both of these blue-blood programs enter the week as wounded animals.
Three turnovers and multiple disasters on special teams cost No. 3 Mountain View (1-1) a rivalry win over Rocky Mountain. Meanwhile, Capital (2-0) needed a late rally to pull out a 22-15 Saturday afternoon win against Timberline, its 17th straight victory over the Wolves.
That should deliver a wake-up call to Capital, which entered the season with aspirations of making a deep playoff run. Teams that can’t take care of business against winless programs don’t make it far into November.
Expect a bounce-back game from Capital, but not enough to knock off Mountain View, which has won five of the last six meetings against the Eagles.
Mountain View 36, Capital 29
BORAH AT EAGLE, 7 P.M. FRIDAY
The battle between Borah’s Austin Bolt and Eagle’s Ben Ford alone is worth the price of admission. Both teams’ quarterbacks have set the SIC on fire this fall, with Ford racking up 560 total yards and seven TDs through two games to Bolt’s 412 total yards and six TDs.
Give Bolt the edge in the individual matchup. He recently picked up a scholarship offer from Boise State and impacts the game on nearly every play.
But Ford has more help around him.
Eagle 34, Borah 21
TIMBERLINE AT MERIDIAN, 7 P.M. FRIDAY
My heart tells me to pick Timberline. The Wolves nearly ended their now 12-game losing streak last week, dominating Capital up front for what would have been the second win over Capital in school history.
That losing streak will end this year. In fact, expect Timberline to score multiple wins this fall. But a road trip to upstart Meridian remains a tough place to end that losing streak.
Meridian 21, Timberline 15
KUNA AT RIDGEVUE, 7 P.M. FRIDAY
I drove the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it bus on Kuna for years. But after back-to-back upsets of Middleton and Nampa, the Kavemen (2-0) find themselves as 4A’s No. 1-ranked team for the first time in ages.
That ranking included a first-place vote from me as Kuna has earned it. With quarterback Sean Austin and running back Jon Edwards putting up points left and right, there’s a lot to like about this Kavemen team.
Kuna 42, Ridgevue 7