Anyone inclined to pay attention is aware that football has been having a moment of reckoning — some would even call it a crisis — over the last few years. Lower participation rates from youth through the high school level have been reported nationwide, and the conversation around concussion and traumatic brain injury among college and professional players has captured the national attention, prompting many to question the sport’s safety, particularly for the youngest players.
Those topics have been at the forefront of the national consciousness for years now — and have sparked fierce debate — for a sport that is a quintessential piece of the American experience, with a vast fan base. Football is still alive and thriving in many towns and high schools across the United States, but the forces that threaten that stability have taken a toll more acutely in certain pockets of the country. The East End of Long Island seems to be one of those, and for parents, coaches, educators and student-athletes of all ages, the big question has been: Will football survive on the East End?
This article is the first in a three-part series that will explore the state of football on the East End of Long Island — what the current status of football is in the districts we cover, from East Hampton to Westhampton Beach, what is being done to help those programs stay healthy and viable and adapt to evolving attitudes and trends within the sport, and what sort of changes have been made or proposed to ensure the safety of student-athletes and the youngest players.
Football programs, from the youth level through high school, college and the pros, have done a lot to try to address the safety concerns surrounding football, and advocates for the sport say those changes have made a big difference. There has been improved education and protocol surrounding concussion identification and treatment; technological advances that have made helmets and other equipment better suited to protect athletes; rule changes that carry greater penalties for aggressive hits; and changes in coaching style, where players are taught to focus on wrapping up players for a tackle rather than using a helmet-to-chest technique. Though it has not come to pass yet, there is talk of doing more in the future, such as eliminating or limiting other elements of the game, including kickoffs or the use of the three-point stance.
The results of the actions taken thus far are mixed, depending on who you ask. Scott Leogrande has been the athletic trainer at Westhampton Beach since the mid 1990s, and he says that he has certainly seen less concussions as a result of those changes, and pointed out that while head injuries are still frequent in football, there have been seasons where other contact sports, like lacrosse, soccer or wrestling, have had more concussions than football.
The question is, will the changes that have been made be enough to change prevailing perceptions around the sport? According to an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, data released in August of last year by the National Federation of State High School Associations showed a 2-percent drop in participation, 20,000 fewer players, between 2016 and 2017, and football enrollment in the past decade declined 6.6 percent, according to the association’s data.
But the nationwide trend plays out differently depending on geographic locations. Teams on eastern Long Island have long been accustomed to making do with much smaller rosters than many other schools in the country, and unlike the largest Class AA schools on Long Island, like perennial powerhouse William Floyd, the same players, (with the exception usually of the quarterback), play on both sides of the ball.
Southampton had only 20 players on its county finalist team in 2005. But the decline of youth programs in areas like Hampton Bays — which currently has no youth football team — and Southampton, which has only one, don’t bode well for the future. East Hampton, meanwhile, dropped its varsity football program in 2016, and there is currently no timetable for its return.
Westhampton Beach, however, has thus far proven to be immune to the problems that are plaguing its neighbors and other programs nationwide. They have a healthy and thriving youth program, and their varsity has been a model of success, having won a Long Island Championship in 2017 and having won 22 straight games.
According to youth coaches, trainers and others associated with the program, the single biggest factor contributing to the success of its program and youth programs is — success. Westhampton Beach’s ability to field a winning varsity team on a consistent basis has helped it weather the storm going on nationally, making it an attractive option for athletically inclined children and their parents in the community.
By contrast, none of the current youth players in Southampton, and even some middle schoolers, were even alive the last time the Mariners made the playoffs in 2005. In East Hampton, children interested in youth football have no guarantee that a football team will even exist by the time they make it to high school.
The Mariners were, at one time, a proud football program with a reputation as a small, but strong, team in Division IV. But the team has not made the playoffs since advancing to the Division IV county final against Babylon in 2005, and has seen four different head coaches during that time. The lack of a winning tradition on varsity has made it hard to spark interest at the youth level.
“We’re able to field teams, but with no real depth,” Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said. He pointed out that it’s a problem for small schools across New York, which is why 8-man football has become popular upstate, with more than 30 schools making the switch.
The fact that participation in youth football in Southampton has been waning is alarming as well. Southampton had only one youth football team this year, for fifth- and sixth-graders, and it was open to players from Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton as well, as any players from those schools are invited to participate with Southampton at the junior high and high school level.
Phillips cited several reasons for the decline, including a growing Hispanic population that tends to prefer soccer over football, as well as fears about concussions and head injury brought to the fore by the proliferation of national news stories about college and professional players suffering devastating brain illnesses like CTE.
“While coaches continue to try to recruit kids to play, the interest in football starts at the youth level,” Phillips said. “If parents don’t want their kids playing football or kids don’t want to go out for football as 7-to-12-year-olds, the chances of them playing when they get to middle school are low.”
Phillips advocates changing youth football to flag football, and postponing live tackling until players reach the seventh grade level.
Southampton, Pierson, Bridgehampton and East Hampton put significant effort into trying to create a large combined team, similar to what they did with their struggling boys lacrosse programs, but the effort fell through, mainly because the combined team would have been required to play in Division I along with Class AA powerhouse programs like William Floyd and Sachem. Division placement is based upon a school’s enrollment numbers, and the enrollment number for the combined team would have placed it in Division I.
Phillips and other East End athletic directors, like Joe Vasile-Cozzo of East Hampton and Eric Bramoff of Pierson, have been trying to work with Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk County, to help bolster their programs, either by allowing them to create a combined team, but still play in Division IV, or change the league alignments to allow the smaller schools to have their own division.
Phillips pointed out that football is the only sport where small schools like Southampton, Hampton Bays, Greenport, Port Jefferson and Wyandanch — considered as Class B or Class C schools in every other sport — are expected to compete with significantly larger Class A schools like Elwood/John Glenn, Mount Sinai and Shoreham/Wading River.
“I believe winning helps build a program, but with those big schools down [in Division IV], it is hard to even finish in the top four,” he said. He added that when Stony Brook and Mercy dropped their varsity programs, the problem became even more acute, as teams that traditionally competed in Division III were dropped down to Division IV to take their place in the interest of keeping an even number of teams in all four divisions. Now, instead of having two smaller schools like Mercy and Stony Brook, the division has become even more stacked with larger, stronger teams.
Across the canal, Hampton Bays has fared better, having made the playoffs during the 2016 season, and having made the playoffs in five of the last 10 years since 2009, but they rarely advance beyond the first round of the postseason.
The Baymen experienced an uptick in participation this year, with a total of 75 students coming out for the JV and varsity teams, which represents the highest number since the 1997/98 school year, and eighth best in the last 23 seasons, according to athletic director Drew Walker. But more bodies does not translate into more success, particularly when there is not an active youth program to help develop skills at a young age. Several of the players on this year’s team were trying their hand at football for the first time in their life as high school students.
Like Phillips, Walker is intrigued by the possibilities flag football can offer. He pointed out that SYS offers a youth flag football program in the fall, which is open to students from Hampton Bays, and believes it could be a way forward to kick start youth football in Hampton Bays again.
“I think that program is something that we need to look at as a community and see if there is any parent interested to get something off the ground at the youth level for Hampton Bays,” he said.
Where Walker differs from Phillips, however, is in his desire to move toward eight-man football. Hampton Bays would not be part of plans to make a combined South Fork team, and while the Baymen have had mixed results in terms of success over the past few years, they have seen enough of it to want to stay with the traditional format, at least for now.
“At Hampton Bays, we want to stick with 11-man football and are working hard to maintain that,” Walker said.
He pointed out that a push toward eight-man football would have a domino effect for other small school teams like his own.
“The issue for all schools in Conference IV is if a team drops a varsity team or decides to try to play eight-man football, all the other teams will have to evaluate their own program and competitiveness within the new conference of teams that is formed.”
Phillips is still holding out hope that something can happen soon — that either Section XI officials will have a change of heart, or that eight-man football will take hold, which would allow teams to be eligible for the New York State playoff system for eight-man football. If neither of those options comes through, however, Phillips was blunt about what he thinks could happen.
“If we don’t get more kids playing in PAL and junior high, it will die,” he said.
Next week’s article will take a closer look at youth football.