FOUNTAIN LAKE, Ark. – On Tuesday afternoon, the news broke that Fountain Lake would be the the most recent school, in this case a 4A program, to give up funding a full football program in favor of 8-man football inArkansas.
A move like this should come with a certain amount of shock, and it does to an extent. However, it's not the type of shock that one might expect.
The shock isn't that there are now enough 3A and 4A 8-man football teams to create their own conference should they choose. The shock is that it took this long to get to this point.
As studies about CTE and brain trauma began to reveal the cause of so many issues at the turn of the century, it became clear that football would eventually see a decline expected to reach the levels of boxing. It was easy to imagine a world where the only people who continued to play the sport would be the most desperate among us who saw it as their only option to change their station in life.
What started as a movement among mothers to protect their young children slowly began to spread to fathers also as they began to recognize some of the symptoms in themselves that were described in the deaths of so many high profile athletes whose brains were severely damaged.
We've now hit the second generation to see the price of football as too high to justify the cost in youth sports. The number of homes where the sport is to be seen, not played, has dramatically increased.
In many corners of the country, the reaction is no longer astonishment that a family prefers their sons not play football. We've reached a balancing point that is borderline to tipping into astonishment that someone lets their child play football, especially among families where wealth and education are easily accessible.
In Arkansas, where numbers have always been relatively low when compared to other states, it doesn't take many athletes choosing to focus on other sports to dwindle the participation low enough to make Friday nights one or two injuries away from a forfeit. That's exactly what's happened.
For those who have lived their whole lives in the state, it might be possible to view football as king. However, once you step beyond the borders for a wider view, the sport appears to be on life support and has been for a while.
A robust 4A roster in Arkansas ran 35-40 players even before CTE awareness. JV teams were a luxury and included a large number of varsity players.
In states where football truly is king, a 4A team has at least three full teams with 40-45 players each.
Basketball is actually king in Arkansas. If you were to take Bentonville's football stadium, which is considered a jewel in the Natural State, and placed it Texas, it would be a decent 3A stadium at best.
That doesn't mean it's not a nice stadium. It's what the sport demands.
Head down to Mills in Little Rock, and you will find a stadium equivalent to a Class A, perhaps small 2A, stadium in Texas. Again, it's what demand requires, so there's no need to build a $120 million cathedral that holds 15,000-20,000 with giant replay boards, cameras running down the rails and indoor golf/wrestling facilities buried inside.
However, if you go to Frisco, Texas, the city that houses the Dallas Cowboys headquarters, you will find 13 high schools, most of which have been built in the last decade that each house 2,000-3,000 students. While football is played in massive state of the art stadiums, the smallest of which is the 12,000 seat indoor Ford Stadium, in those schools, you will find dark gyms the size of a 1A-2A gym in Arkansas with floors beat to pieces.
To find a gym on par with Cave City, an Arkansas school with an enrollment of 400, you have to go to the largest, wealthiest, most elite tax bases in Texas, and even then there is much consternation about why the money was used on a basketball gym.
Add in recent demand for sports like soccer, wrestling and swimming, three sports that weren't available at most Arkansas schools in the 1990s, and there are plenty of safer options for young men to meet their competitive needs without the risk of waking up next to their wives in the future not able to remember who she is.
Fountain Lake isn't going to be the last to take this step. In addition to participation numbers going down, school budgets traditionally get thinner each year as unfunded mandates, rising technology costs, and the pressure to pay teachers enough to keep their lights on and have food increase.
Football is an expensive sport to maintain. When the programs start to go entirely, there will be a group that will protest with their mouths with great viciousness, but when asked to back up that bark with a bite from their wallets, will go out with a whimper.
With e-sports gaining popularity as a competitive option in other states while more colleges offer scholarships for its e-sports teams, it's possible the only football the grandchildren of the current graduating class play will take place on a giant screen in front of thousands of screaming fans in an Arkansas basketball gym.
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