Secondary school principals have always been involved in their high school football programs, but coaches and athletic directors have traditionally taken the lead. Recently, however, various issues—burgeoning safety concerns, increased parental interest, enhanced attention to alternatives to tackle football, and the growing importance of social-emotional learning—have resulted in principals having to focus more attention on football-related matters.

Many parents are probably unaware of the governance of high school football, which on a national level falls under the domain of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). This group establishes rules for high school athletes in 17 sports, including football. The NFHS Football Rules Committee includes one representative from 50 out of 51 state associations (including the District of Columbia) that follow NFHS Football Playing Rules (Texas follows NCAA rules), along with representation from the NFHS Coaches Association, NFHS Officials Association, and the sports medicine community.

Involving Principals

As parents and principals more closely analyze how football plays into the school as a whole, both should consider tapping into resources from both state and national organizations.

“It is fundamental to understand that the academic mission and interscholastic athletics mission are considered coequal partners in the educational process,” says Bill Gaine, executive director of both the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association. (While these two associations have separate missions, separate boards, and separate finance boards, they are served by the same staff and at the same location.) “The principal is essential in setting optimal levels of expectations and standards. The positive educational outcomes of interscholastic athletics do not happen by chance. They happen because teacher-coaches and the school administration adopt an intentional and purposeful approach to the interscholastic athletic experience. The athletic director’s role is to implement those standards by hiring quality teacher-coaches who are expected to go beyond the X’s and O’s and teach the curriculum of educational athletics.”

The Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) serves as the professional services association in that state, says Richard A. Durost, MPA’s executive director. In Maine, principals and assistant principals are members of the Professional Division of the MPA, which serves as their professional development and advocacy association. High schools in Maine are members of the interscholastic division, with the high school principal being the voting member for that school. The MPA oversees high school athletics and activities, and sanctions and runs all state championships. Athletic directors have their own state association, but they work very closely with MPA, serving active roles on the committees that run the championships in each respective sport or activity. Coaches’ associations serve in nonvoting liaison roles with most committees.

There is a wealth of research citing the impact of participation in cocurricular activities, such as the role of athletics and the performing arts on personal growth, academic performance, and learning in general, says NFHS Executive Director Karen Niehoff. “I think a more intentional, collaborative effort to encourage participation in education-based programming can benefit both halves of the school day—the academic program and the cocurricular program—and, most importantly, benefit kids. There has been tremendous growth in recent years of programs that operate outside of [or] apart from the school and are not grounded in a healthy education-​based approach,” she explains.

Niehoff adds that her organization would like to work with secondary school principals and support them in any way possible, especially if her group could become a resource. “We would like to see them support and be explicit in advocating for cocurricular programs. We would also like for principals to take an active role in educating parents about the importance of participation, and of good sportsmanship,” she asserts.

Growing Safety Concerns

While the demands on principals have intensified in general, the heightened concern about safety has prompted significant activity in a number of areas that principals need to know about, Niehoff says. Those include state statutes on concussion education, contact limitations, equipment quality, coaching education requirements, rule changes promoting risk minimization, and skill-based (as opposed to competition-based) programs. “I think there will always be inherent risk in participation in all sports, but I believe the game of football has never been more focused on safety. I believe that we will continue to explore ways to keep players safe through equipment and rules modifications,” she says.

“State associations and the NFHS have always had the health and safety of student athletes at the forefront. Most states have sports medicine advisory committees, as does the NFHS,” says Durost. “Concussion protocols, return to learn, and education of coaches, student athletes, and parents have all been a priority.”

Parental Concerns

What do you say to parents who ask whether their child should play high school football?

“This is a question that requires thoughtful consideration that is unique to each potential player,” Niehoff explains. She recommends weighing the following:

  • Level of interest
  • Physical history of their child—health, physical condition, prior sports experience
  • Quality of the high school program—coach education and background, skill development philosophy and strategies, equipment quality, medical resources (do they have an athletic trainer?)

Neihoff also recommends parents get to know the coaches in advance and ask them questions. Talk with trusted parents of kids involved in the program. “Participating in football can be a tremendous experience,” Niehoff says. “The young man or young woman and the program in general must be a good fit.”

Durost says such a question is a family decision “to be made by the student with advice and support of the parents. Consideration of the size, age, and strength of the student athlete is important. Competition should be among age-appropriate [kids] and physical equals to the extent possible.”

Relating to Football Players

Are coaches relating to football players differently today? Absolutely, Niehoff says. “Across the country, high school rules have become more stringent regarding hours of practice, minutes of full-contact drills, numbers of contests in a season, number of quarters played per week, even practice conditions such as heat and humidity,” she says. “There has been increased emphasis on antihazing and bullying regulations, helping to support a safer culture within a team. Through improved education programs, coaches are being taught to pay greater attention to the overall well-being of their athletes. In fact, our state association executive directors have placed mental health as a top priority for ongoing national professional development.”

“Many more coaches have become more in tune with emotional learning,” Durost says. “Student athletes can still be pushed, but with an understanding of physical limitations, hydration, heat, etc. Coaches’ education has and should play a strong role.”

Changes in coaching methodology, appropriate student-athlete communication, and adherence to safety standards are clear and necessary in the dynamics of coaching today. It is imperative that coaching techniques and coaching resources continue to elevate, Gaine says.

Future of Football Programs

With the concerns about football, are any high schools discontinuing their programs? According to Neihoff, the NFHS collects participation data on an annual basis (but does not collect data regarding why a school might discontinue a football program). “We have seen a recent trending slight drop in high school football participation overall. However, while we had a decrease of just over 1 percent in terms of participants last year, we had an increase in the number of programs,” she says. The organization has heard from its membership that a number of factors may influence football participation numbers, including:

  • Declining school enrollments
  • Increasing the number of offerings
  • Concern about injury
  • Loss of/absence of feeder programs at youth and middle level

“We are currently working with a researcher to develop a more comprehensive participation survey so that we can gain a clearer picture of why sport participation does or does not happen,” Niehoff says.

According to Gaine, the sport of football is challenged. “Data demonstrates a decline in participation and increased safety concerns. The NFL, NCAA, NFHS, USA Football, and youth football are among the national governing bodies aggressively making appropriate rule changes, as well as equipment and practice changes,” he says, also noting that in Massachusetts participation in high school football has not declined this past year.

Maine has had a few schools form cooperative teams, Durost says. Some have moved to sub-varsity programs as a means of allowing the program to grow numbers again. Maine is looking at the possibility of adding eight-man football teams as an option.

Niehoff expects to see more youth-level programs that are skills-based as opposed to competition-based. “USA Football is designing the Football Development Model, which is skill-based, including heavy emphasis on appropriate age-size-skill progress with modified competitive situations. There have been efforts made already, but I believe the USA Football model will lead the way for youth programs,” she says.

What about flag football?

“While we are witnessing the growth of flag football, I don’t believe at this point that it will replace healthy 11-player tackle programs,” Niehoff says. “Flag football can provide a great base for learning skills that are important for traditional football and can be a great entry point for a student athlete who may want to begin playing traditional football,” she says. “But my hope is that both programs can co-exist, allowing for a greater number of kids to participate in cocurricular activities.”

Durost notes that flag football as an option for girls’ participation has caught on in a few states. “My crystal ball does not see a day where flag football will replace tackle football at the interscholastic athletic level. On the other hand, a few states—for example, Alaska, Nevada, and Florida—have established girls’ interscholastic flag football programs, and other states are considering girls flag football at the high school level,” Gaine says.

It’s important for principals to attend their high school football games, Gaine says. “I have no reservation in asserting that the presence, visibility, and support of principals, athletic directors, and teachers have a significant positive benefit to building a positive school culture,” Gaine says.

Niehoff agrees. “Being present at football games matters! It sends a message of support to the kids, coaches, and families, the folks on the field, and in the stands. Of course, having the principal on-site from a supervisory perspective is always beneficial. But most importantly, being there shows that you care, you believe in what the kids are doing, and that you are with them in their journey as a team—win or lose,” she says. “And it is fun.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Sidebar: NFHS Rules Changes

Each year, the NFHS Football Rules Committee issues a questionnaire inviting feedback from the membership regarding current rules, notes Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. Rule change proposals can subsequently be submitted by a prescribed deadline to the NFHS staff member serving as Football Rules Committee liaison.

Ideas for rule changes can originate from coaches, officials, athletic directors, school leaders, or state association staff. The official proposal, however, must be submitted by a member state association, a rules committee member, NFHS staff, or a member of the NFHS Board of Directors. The NFHS Football Rules Committee staff liaison collects official proposals and organizes them in preparation for the Football Committee meeting, which occurs over three January days in Indianapolis. The Football Committee reviews the proposals and submits recommendations to the NFHS Rules Review Committee. This group invites feedback on proposed changes from the membership and ultimately submits recommendations for rule changes to the NFHS Board of Directors for approval. It is extremely important that the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee provide feedback on rules proposals from a risk minimization perspective.