Ellsworth High School football players warm up during an August 2019 practice at the school. The school was among 10 that played eight-player football that year, but the number swelled to 26 for the 2020 season. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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When I returned to Maine in 2014, one of the things I was most excited to do was watch high school sports in my home state again. Going to my first local football game in town was pretty special, and felt like I had been transplanted back in time. The sidelines were overflowing with players, the stands were packed. The student section was just as rambunctious as I remembered

Yet as the years passed, I started to notice something troubling happening. The sidelines became less full of kids, the stands were less filled, and the student section was there less frequently than it used to be.

Participation in football has been dropping significantly across the country, and in Maine. The decline in numbers has been so significant that more than 25 teams now play an eight-man version of the sport, in order to be able to even field a team.

There are many reasons why this is the case, but many relate to parental concerns over the potential impact of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) on children. Put simply, with new research into head trauma, fewer parents want their kids to play such a violent sport.

Leagues have tried to adapt to parental fears. When my oldest son played football, he could play a full tackle, padded version in second grade. My younger son, on the other hand, now has to play non-contact flag football all the way through fifth grade. This change, while not universal, has resulted in the sport simply being less interesting to many kids, and so fewer play.

Decreased participation, though, is apparently a problem that is bigger than just football. Last weekend, the Portland Press Herald ran a story examining Maine’s cratering youth sport participation, noting that participation in high school sports in Maine has decreased by 12 percent. All told, there has been a net loss of 6,449 roster spots in the last 10 years.

So what is happening here?

The answer is complex, but the two most compelling explanations are declining student enrollment and increased sports specialization.

The decreasing student population is a larger social problem tied to Maine’s skewed demographics. This is a problem that is only going to get worse over time. Sports specialization, though, is another matter altogether. Kids today are playing fewer sports, and hyper-developing in what they do play.

Many people imagine that the reason for this is the existence of deluded parents who hope to train professional athletes so that they can live vicariously through them. I’ve seen it, and there is no doubt that such parents do exist. The reality, though, is that most decisions to specialize are more about “keeping up” than dreams of athletic glory.

My oldest son played six years of travel baseball and three of travel soccer. For my family, the decision to do this wasn’t about trying to train the next great athlete, but rather to give him a shot to continue to play sports that he loves, and not get benched as he got older.

Because of specialization, if you don’t spend significant time training in the sports you want to play, other kids who do train year-round get better than you. Kids who do not specialize will often find that by the time they reach high school, they no longer have any hope of making the team. If they do, they will usually find themselves on the bench.

My youngest son is eight years old, and plays hockey. Because of the way youth sports are today, he has to decide now whether he wants to continue that, or if he wants to play basketball instead. It has become abundantly clear that he will never get good enough at either to keep playing, unless he commits to doing one or the other. Splitting time, as I would’ve done as a kid, is no longer a realistic option.

And so, he is almost certain to continue playing hockey. But making that decision means he will never really experience the fun of playing team basketball, because to do so would likely mean he would get to enjoy neither hockey nor basketball by the time he made it to high school.

If a kid wants to keep playing, it can often feel like he or she has no choice but to participate in an athletic arms race with their peers. This pushes more casual kids out of sport entirely, making the participation problem worse.

That is a sad reality, and not at all the way that it should be. But your guess is as good as mine as to what to do about it.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...