Archived Story

Time to control the decline in athletic participation

Published 8:22am Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Each year, the Michigan High School Athletic Association provides participation figures from the previous year.

For the past few years, the news has not been good as high school sports participation has been declining in the state of Michigan.

Three straight seasons of decline, which goes hand-in-hand with declining school enrollment, have me wondering just how to reverse that trend.

There is no doubt the fact that people left the state of Michigan by the thousands in search of employment and that had a dramatic effect on participation in athletics.

But I believe there is more to the story than that.

I think there are too many outside influences on the student-athlete.

One of the biggest is that kids are now having to help provide for their family units by getting jobs. Another is that kids are specializing in sports, which means they will only play a single sport instead of being a multi-sport athlete.

While most college recruiters will tell you they want to see kids play two or three sports each year because they want to make sure they can handle the load required at the collegiate level, there are coaches telling these same athletes to choose a sport and devote all their time it.

I am of the belief that student-athletes should compete in multiple sports and carry a full load of classes so that they can become accustomed to what they are going to experience at the next level.

I asked Krush Volleyball Club director and Brandywine School Board member Dennis Cooper what he felt about these numbers. I wanted his take because he is on both sides of this issue. He has the perspective of being a club coach as well as having to be concerned with declining numbers as the local high school level.

He agreed that the dip in Michigan’s population has had an effect on participation. He also believes the reduction in school funding has played a role.

“Many schools have dropped freshman teams,” he said. “If they are a larger school like Niles, they dropped their A and B teams in seventh and eighth grade. The numbers on varsity are just as good, but the reduction of junior high and freshmen teams coupled with the reduction of population would be a major reduction.”

Niles Athletic Director Jeff Upton believes the emphasis on specialization is the key factor.

“In both basketball and volleyball there is a widening gap between the travel players and two- and three-sport athletes in high school. The general high school population doesn’t try to challenge for positions on the volleyball and basketball programs thus we continue to see a drop in numbers at the high school level.

“Also at Niles, we did not have enough athletes to field a JV football team last fall. We hope to field all three football teams this fall, but our eighth grade team had very small numbers last year, so that may continue to be a problem. I don’t worry about our volleyball program as coach (Jenny) Nate has continued to build the program and the Krush travel program is very strong in Niles. The success of these programs may also be a cause for our decreased numbers in our basketball program.”

While they may not agree on what is the cause, they both are concerned with the numbers and the speed of the decline.

No one has the answer. If Michigan can rebound and begin to bring more jobs back to the state the numbers will begin to increase or at least stabilize.

But we cannot count on that. We need to be pro-active in getting our children to go out and compete in extra-curricular activities.

I have been beating this drum since I became a sports editor over three decades ago. Kids need to be involved in more than just the classroom. They need to play sports or take part in band or the school play because a well-rounded high school experience is extremely valuable to their growth as an individual.

We need to stop this bleeding as soon as possible and start to reverse the trend because this is an important part of our children’s maturation process.

When they look back at their high school years, being the part of a sports team will be remembered fondly.


Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at

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