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High Schools

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Fewer boys were high school athletes last year, and some suggest the specialization has pushed “middle-tier” performers out and into club sports instead.

Girls join the team

Overall number up even as fewer boys participate

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Schools continue to add teams and sports opportunities for girls, and the number of female athletes rose last year for the 23rd straight year.

The National Federation of State High School Associations issued a report last week on the increase in high school athletes around the nation. The numbers are straightforward, but the conclusions one can draw from it are subjective.

The bottom-line result was overall participation in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was up in 2011-12 by 24,565 athletes to 7,692,520. On the surface, that’s a good thing for high schools and getting students to play sports. That especially holds true in recent economic difficult times.

It is the first time the boys’ numbers fell since 1992-93, while female athletes went up for the 23rd straight year.

Bruce Howard, the NFHS’ director of publications and communications, said the data were gathered from the individual state associations and D.C., with each organization using its own method of reaching its numbers.

“We certainly anticipated that there might be some downturn in the numbers,” Howard said. “We were pleased overall the numbers were higher.”

The report also showed an increase of 33,984 more girls (3,207,533) in sports but a decrease of 9,419 boys (4,484.987).

“There are some areas and some school districts that have faced challenging times to keep some programs afloat, so it’s to some degree not surprising that there would be a fall in some of the numbers,” Howard said. “You have to take that into consideration; there’s not like there was 200,000 (decrease) or something. You have to look at the next two, three or four years to see how it shakes out if there is any alarming numbers there.”

There are numerous theories of why the girls’ numbers are going up and the boys’ numbers are going down – from more opportunities for girls under Title IX or fewer boys wanting to play scholastic sports because of other avenues, including club sports, soccer development academies, traveling baseball and AAU, among others.

“The competitiveness of boys athletics has caused a lot of the ‘middle-tier’ athletes to not want to participate,” Blackhawk Christian athletic director Steve Wild said. “With more specialization, it has definitely taken away from the male athletes. It definitely affects the smaller schools because we count on a core group of athletes that can play multiple sports that we need.”

Wild said 70 percent of last year’s graduating class lettered in a sport, the highest total in the decade he has been at Blackhawk Christian. He added that about 60 percent of the student body participates in sports at the school, which added girls soccer and girls tennis in the last five or six years.

“From our standpoint, we have seen the girls’ increase has been a big portion of that,” Wild said. “The sports we have added have been from the female standpoint. That’s the encouraging news that you are seeing a number of opportunities for girls, more than there’s ever been.”

Is the boys’ downturn a disturbing trend or a temporary abnormality?

The top sport for boys was 11-player football, with 1,095,993 athletes nationwide. Seven of the top 10 participation sports had a decrease, including football. Howard said this is a number to track in the future because of the increased awareness of serious injuries such as concussions.

“Come back next and if there’s an even higher decrease, then maybe you begin to get concerned,” Howard said. “It is much too early to draw any conclusions to any linkage to concussions or anything like that.”