In Rural America, School Sports Dying With The Population

Dec 28 2013, 12:08am CST | by

Stories about the death of a school, and/or its sports, being the symbolic nail in the coffin of a rural town aren’t new, but you’re probably going to see a lot more of them, like this Omaha World-Herald longform (called that because it has nifty graphics and such) about the death spiral of football in rural Nebraska. The piece is by Dirk Chatelain, who earlier chronicled how the declining supply of Great Plains talent helped explain in part why the University of Nebraska’s recruiting classes were coming from farther afield (that has nifty graphics, too).

The niftiest graphic in Chatelain’s latest piece, which focuses on one rural Catholic school program as a symbol of decline, is a map in which you can use a drag bar to show the slow drip of schools dropping the sport over the last 30 years, adding up to a lake of empty gridirons, or some watery metaphor.

In 1983, 355 Nebraska high schools had football programs, while in 2013 only 282 did. There was no one big year in which football (or schools) disappeared; if that had been the case, then maybe people could hold out hope once the few bad years were over, things would stabilize. But those red dots on the map, especially in the central and western part of the state, keep disappearing, a few at a time, every year. From Chatelain:

The trend has multiple causes:

» Advanced machinery allows farmers to work 10 times as many acres as their fathers did. The demand for help in small towns isn’t what it used to be.

» Families choose two or three kids rather than six or nine. Kindergarten classes are consistently smaller than senior classes.

» The ebb and flow of rural economics leads to generation gaps. During the ’80s, for instance, times got so tough that small farmers moved away.

» The lure of cities like Lincoln and Omaha, two hours east. More high school graduates go to college and don’t come back.

» Decreased participation rates in football. Maybe it’s the fear of injury. Maybe it’s more extracurricular alternatives. Either way, fewer kids are playing.

As a result, in rural areas, sports are going back to the future — and not in a good way.

The sports co-op — in which two or more schools share athletics to get the numbers necessary to compete — is making a comeback in many areas. So are reduced-player squads, such as six-, eight- or nine-player football, a necessity for schools that were trying to field 11-player teams with only 15 kids coming out for practice. In many of these areas, school consolidation already created fewer, larger districts out of small-town schools. Now, because of depopulation, those fewer, larger rural districts are in decline — and their sports show it.

For instance, look at Wisconsin. In 1957, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, 78 high schools fielded reduced-player football teams, but by 1969 — after a period of consolidation that helped bump up the number of kids at each rural high school — that number was down to six. In 2013, reflecting a long, slow rural decline, 21 Wisconsin high schools fielded eight-player football teams, and 16 of those converted from 11-player in the last year.

For years, rural areas have had trouble keeping kids on the farm once they’ve see Paree (or Omaha), but the situation is particularly dire now, and getting worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, citing Census data, lays out the situation in a rural world in which 1,261 nonmetro counties lost population from 2010-12, compared with 230 that grew above the national rate of 1.7 percent:

Between April 2010 and July 2012, nonmetro counties as a whole declined in population, most likely for the first time. Even if temporary, this small but historic shift highlights a growing demographic challenge facing many regions across rural and small-town America, as population growth from natural change (births minus deaths) is no longer large enough to counter net migration losses when they occur.

Nonmetro population growth from net migration peaked in 2006, then declined precipitously and shifted geographically in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, energy sector developments, and other factors. Historically, suburban expansion and migration to scenic, retirement-recreation destinations have been primary drivers of rural demographic change, but for the time being at least, their influence has considerably weakened.

By the way, if you like nifty graphics showing heartbreaking loss, I would recommend the Department of Agriculture’s Atlas of Rural and Small Town America, in which you can see all sorts of maps detailing rural decline. In many cases, the depopulation (and subsequent negative effects on schools and sports) is happening in concert with job losses and economic decline; in some cases, the economy technically is strong, but the area just doesn’t need as many people to do the work to keep it that way.

The end of high school football makes for a good symbolic point about the decline of rural America because the sport requires so many kids in order to field a team, and because it’s been one of the centers of small-town social life.

Not being able to field a football team is what separates, in theory, a thriving school from a dying one, because even in a small, declining school, you can still put together enough players for basketball teams. However, there is one bigger, more-than-symbolic milestone to come. If your school is getting so small that putting together a halfway decent starting five is that big of an issue, then it’s not the sport that will get shut down — it’s the school.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Fareed Zakaria faces fresh plagiarism charges
Washington, Aug 20 (IANS) Indian-American journalist Fareed Zakaria, who two years ago got away from a plagiarism controversy claiming he made a "terrible mistake", is facing fresh plagiarism charges from anonymous internet watchdogs.
 
 
Ukraine seeks combined IMF aid tranches
Kiev, Aug 20 (IANS) Ukraine Wednesday voiced hope that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will consider a possibility of combining the third and fourth tranches of its aid programme for Kiev.
 
 
Investments pouring in from Singapore: Bengal minister
Singapore, Aug 20 (IANS) Camping here to woo investors, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra Wednesday said many companies have signed joint ventures and letters of intent promising to pump in at least Rs.1,200 crore in his state.
 
 
111-year-old Japanese officially declared world's oldest man
Tokyo, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Sakari Momoi, a 111-year-old Japanese citizen, was Wednesday officially recognised in Tokyo as the oldest man in the world by the Guinness World Records award committee.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Katie Holmes used to be 'a very nervous mother'
Katie Holmes says she was initially ''a very nervous mother.'' The 35-year-old actress, who has daughter Suri, eight, with ex-husband Tom Cruise, whom she split from in 2012 after six years of marriage, insists he had...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Beyoncé Knowles is leaning on Gwyneth Paltrow
Beyoncé Knowles is leaning on Gwyneth Paltrow for support. The 'Pretty Hurts' hitmaker, whose marriage to rapper Jay Z is allegedly on the rocks, has reportedly been confiding in the 'Iron Man 3' actress, who split from...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Chloë Grace Moretz used body double
Chloë Grace Moretz's head was superimposed on a body double in 'If I Stay'. The young actress struggled to learn the cello for her new movie role so producers used computer trickery to place her head on a double to film...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
43 killed in fresh clashes in Ukraine
Kiev, Aug 20 (IANS) At least 43 people, including 34 civilians, were killed in fresh clashes in eastern Ukraine over the last 24 hours, authorities said Wednesday. Nine government troopers were killed and 12 others...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
INS Sahyadri reaches Philippines to enhance naval ties
Manila, Aug 20 (IANS) The Indian Navy's INS Sahyadri arrived in Manila, Philippines Wednesday and made a courtesy port call to reinforce naval ties, a defence ministry statement said. Navy officials said the...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
40 soldiers in Nigeria face execution for mutiny
Abuja, Aug 20 (IANS) Nigeria's Chief of Army Staff Kenneth Minimah has said some 40 soldiers in north-eastern Nigeria, who refused to fight the Islamist Boko Haram group, would be court-martialled and sentenced to...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Wife, workmate charged with Sikh man's murder
Wellington, Aug 20 (IANS) The wife of a Sikh man and her workmate have been charged with murdering him in New Zealand, media reported Wednesday. Gurjinder Singh, 25, and Amandeep Kaur, 31, appeared in the Auckland...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Hamas military head alive as Gaza conflict continues (Roundup)
Gaza, Aug 20 (IANS) Islamist movement Hamas said Wednesday its military wing commander Mohammed Deif is alive and still issuing orders in the fight against Israel in the Gaza Strip, according to media reports. Israeli...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Three policemen shot dead in Yemen
Sanaa, Aug 20 (IANS) Three policemen were killed by unidentified gunmen in Yemen's southern province of Abyan late Wednesday, a government official said. The gunmen with assault rifles opened fire at military police...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
West Indies sever ties with Gibson
St. John's (Antigua), Aug 20 (IANS/CMC) Ottis Gibson's tenure as head coach of the West Indies cricket team has ended and team manager and former captain Richie Richardson will take interim charge for the ODI series...
Read more on Sport Balla