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NFHS Survey Shows Death Of High School Sports Greatly Exaggerated

Fall in recent years has brought two predictable bits of information when its comes to high school sports: stories declaring its demise in favor of elite-level club sports, and a survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations declaring its robust health.

For the 24th straight year, high school sports participation went up, with a record 7,713,577 participants in 2012-13, up 21,057 from the previous school year, according to the NFHS survey, released Aug. 20. The survey said 4,490,854 boys participated, up 5,867 from 2011-12, which had been the first time in 20 years the boys’ total had fallen. Girls participation was up for the 24th straight year, increasing 15,190 to a record 3,222,723. While New Jersey was the only one of the top 10 states, ranked by participation, to show an improvement in its numbers, overall, 31 states were up, 18 were down, and New York and Washington, DC, were flat.

A couple of things to keep in mind about these numbers. First, they tend to track with the overall under-18 population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population ages 14 to 17 actually fell in 2012, so it’s possible that soon enough the NFHS survey will reflect a participation decline. Also, 7,713,577 participants doesn’t mean 7,713,577 people — each person in each sport is counted as one. So, for example, my son, participating in football and track, counts as two. Also, because they are compiled by state high school associations that are NFHS members, they don’t include any high schoolers competing in a home-school league, single-sport state association or any other organized sports entity not a part of NFHS, including, of course, elite club teams.

Still, the NFHS numbers undoubtedly paint a picture that, despite club competition, pay-to-play fees, single-sport specialization and other real and perceived threats to organized school sports, they continue to be an important part of the school experience for a lot of teenagers. Club sports might be a better way to attract attention for college scholarships, but high school sports has two advantages that are difficult for any elite league to overcome. One is that, even with pay-to-play fees, high school sports are less expensive. The other, and bigger advantage, is the juice that comes from putting on the school name and playing in front of friends, family, and people you don’t know who support the school and community as a matter of course. Walking the high school halls as a club sports player is nice, but being on a school team means a little something more in the social order.

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