Every place I’ve been, people have told me, “Football is big here” — and every place I’ve been, that’s been 100 percent accurate.
Sure, I lived and worked for years in Texas, seen by some as the national standard bearer for the popularity of football at all levels, and especially high school football, thanks in part to H.G. Buzz Bissinger’s book “Friday Night Lights,” which told the story of the Permian Panthers’ quest to bring a state title to Odessa in the late 80s.
The Friday night lights are indeed bright in the Lone Star State — but they shone pretty brightly in Alabama and Mississippi as well. I have no doubt that across New Mexico, it’s the same.
The popularity of high school football is a thread that runs throughout towns across much of America. Whether one watches from the stands or the sidelines, when a football is kicked off in front of a crowd in this country, there’s an electricity in the air.
And that’s high school football. Once it comes to college football and the country’s near-obsession with the NFL’s pro game, electricity doesn’t seem a descriptive enough word.
It’s been almost a half-century since football surpassed baseball as the country’s favorite sport — in the early 70s, Gallup announced its polling showed that football had become America’s game: “Sometime between 1960 and 1972 — spanning a decade marked by sweeping moral, religious and cultural change in the U.S. — Americans shifted from a primarily baseball-loving people to a primarily football-loving people,” according to Gallup. “A January 1972 Gallup survey found 38 percent of Americans identifying football as their favorite sport to watch while 19 percent named baseball. That was nearly a reversal of what Gallup had found in the previous asking in December 1960. At that time, 34 percent named baseball and 21 percent football.”
Pro football, especially in recent years, has taken some hits in popularity due to scandals involving players, the national anthem controversy and concerns about the level of violence inherent in the game.
Still, not much has changed in the decades since the results of that 1972 survey were published.
A more recent Gallup report, released earlier this year, states, “American football, under attack from critics in recent years, has lost some of its popularity but is still the champion of U.S. spectator sports — picked by 37 percent of U.S. adults as their favorite sport to watch. The next-most-popular sports are basketball, favored by 11 percent, and baseball, favored by nine percent. …
“Though football retains its top spot, its popularity has slipped since peaking at 43 percent in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, it dipped slightly to 41 percent and dropped again to 39 percent in 2013 …”
Worries about violent impacts — the potential for head injuries especially — has changed how some view the sport itself, from the professional level down to youth leagues.
An NBC News report released just Friday quoted National Federation of State High School Associations data showing that while participation in youth sports is climbing, the number of kids signing up to play football, nationwide, has dipped. According to the organization, NBC’s report states, since the 2009-2010 season the numbers have fallen by seven percent.
But a former player quoted in the piece pointed out that due to changes in rules and improvements to equipment, football is safer to play now than it’s ever been.
I’m a product of the times I’ve lived through, I suppose. I’m a huge fan of baseball, watch some basketball here and there and even keep up with motorsports. But football is its own thing. That’s largely because when I think back on watching sports with my dad and grandfather, those memories revolve almost exclusively around football games, mostly contests involving the college and pro teams we followed and supported. As a family, that was our sports pastime.
Time goes by and adaptations are made. Sports are always tweaking rules and bettering equipment, and certainly they should, where safety is at issue, especially at the youth level.
But despite a few alterations here and there, football remains a great game. It’s hard to see the sport losing its accustomed spot atop the American sports hierarchy — and impossible to imagine a time when people in towns across the country stop gathering beneath those Friday night lights. The game has simply brought too many people together for too long.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.