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Football, high schools, and elevating the education of boys

One of my high school football coaches, a former star player at Louisiana State University, once described as un-matched the thrill he felt as he ran out of the tunnel, under the goal posts, and onto the turf of Tiger Stadium. Nearly 30,000 North Carolina teenagers will experience something akin to that thrill this evening (Friday, Aug. 18) as the 2017 high school football season opens.

Football has long ranked as the top sport among high school boys, with 1.05 million participants in 11-man tackle football nationwide. North Carolina had 29,000 boys in football in the 2016-17 year, down from 36,000 in 2013-14.

Of course, the potency of football in our educational system — and in our culture — reaches beyond the count of boys who put on helmets and pads. Town-to-town rivalries play out under the Friday night lights. Thousands of students perform in marching bands and cheerleading corps. Booster clubs become centers of parental participation and power in high schools. Football gate receipts help pay the bills for boys and girls teams in lacrosse, swimming, tennis, softball, and more.

As a new football season opens, let’s reflect on an item of good news and on issues that arise as North Carolina debates the future of its high schools:

  1. The Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut has ranked North Carolina first among the states in high school sports safety policy. The institute devised the rankings by measuring health and safety policies enacted into law or adopted by state public high school associations.

North Carolina’s score of 78.75 percent far exceeded the median state score of 47 percent. Kentucky ranked second at 71.13, and no other state had a score above 70.

Of course, policy is only as effective as its implementation and enforcement. In contact sports, injuries are inevitable — as I can attest from my own array of sprains, gashes, and a memorable concussion. Still, the UConn study should serve as some reassurance to parents and their children participating in high school athletics.

North Carolina didn’t get its high ranking by accident. In 2011, the General Assembly enacted and then-Gov. Bev Perdue signed a concussion awareness act. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association, which was assigned to enforce the law, has an extensive set of protocols for schools to follow in minimizing and dealing with injuries.

The NCHSAA, now an independent organization, was formed a century ago out of the University of North Carolina. More recently, UNC-Chapel Hill has served as a leading source of knowledge on sports-related injuries — notably the work of Kevin Guskiewicz, now the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who won a McArthur grant for his concussion research. (Speaking for a moment as a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member, I would point to these examples as indicative of the value of the university’s research and service to North Carolina.)

2. Not long before his death more than 15 years ago, Joe Grimsley talked to me about the importance of high school football in rural communities. At the time, he was president of Richmond Community College, after earlier serving as Gov. Jim Hunt’s campaign manager and in the Hunt cabinet.

Grimsley didn’t talk about schools as rural employment centers; rather, his point was about the education of male teenagers. Football, he said, kept in school — and studying to remain eligible — many boys who would otherwise give up or drop out.

I recalled his observation as I was not only thinking about the opening of football season but also over the summer reading data and analyses of education and employment of men. Over the past two decades, economic shifts have eroded well-paying jobs for men with no more than a high school diploma. In a recent essay for The New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall wrote that “men of all races and ethnicities are dropping out of the workforce, abusing opioids and falling behind women in both college attendance and graduation rates.”

Of course, it will require more than football to offset the travails of men. In their academic offerings, in their teaching styles, and in their counseling, North Carolina high schools serve as critical vehicles for redirecting young men.

3. While bearing in mind Joe Grimsley’s caution, I return to a question raised in previous columns: What’s the right number of competitive inter-school games for adolescents? Pre-season football practice began on July 31. High schools play a basic 10-game schedule. Then, according to the NCHSAA website, playoffs stretch over five weeks from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8-9. Some teams will end up playing 12, 13, 14 games.

It seems incongruous that high schools would begin the football season well before the opening of classes under the traditional calendar. If high schools can conduct practice — offering instruction and character-building enrichment to athletes — through August, why can’t the schools open and offer enrichment to all students on the same schedule?

The larger issue is the scale, educational role, equity, and finances of high school athletics. A more compact season would reduce the chances of serious injury, while also free up students’ time for study and for other extracurricular activities.

So let the boys enjoy their adrenaline rush as they gallop onto the gridirons for opening night. But also let North Carolina put its collective mind to deploying high schools that propel young men, and women, toward winning in economic and civic life in adulthood.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.