Lexington, Ky. (WKYT) - Student-athlete participation in Kentucky reached all-time highs last year, and while football remains the most popular sport among Kentucky high school boys, participation in football is on the decline.
Kentucky High School Athletics Association Commissioner Julian Tackett says at the varsity level, participation is down around 500 kids compared to 15 years ago. Recent numbers by the KHSAA show a steady decline over the last four years when including all levels, as it has gone from an all-time high of 14,305 high school football players in 2015 to 13,075 participants last season.
"For us that's not that big of a decline, but where we are losing them is the non-varsity level," Tackett said. "The problem is if you sit and think about it, that doesn't bode well for the future."
Several factors may be contributing to the downward trend, most notably injury concerns related to concussions and brain injuries. However, Woodford County head coach Dennis Johnson played in the NFL in the early 2000s and thinks football is as safe as it's ever been.
"Football has gotten a bad rap because of the concussion talk," Johnson said. "Any sport you can get hurt in, but I think if you teach it the right way, kids will be safe, and there are going to be injuries in every sport, so you really can't tell a parent, can you guarantee my son, you can't do that."
Some coaches attribute the decline to the mentality of kids today.
"I don't think we live in a society now where maybe toughness is as respected as it was maybe 15 to 20 years ago, and so the badge of courage or the badge of honor you might say, that I had when I grew up playing is kind of gone or washed away," said East Jessamine coach Mike Bowlin.
Another contributing factor is sport specialization. Tackett says a steady decline in football participation can have a negative effect on the other sanctioned sports.
"What we have to guard against is it is the biggest fundraiser for most of our schools," said Tackett. "A decline of one bad football gate could hurt the cross country team or the tennis team."
While high schoolers now have many other options from archery to bass fishing and esports, keeping participation numbers up in football is a priority.