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

 
 

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