Dante Chinni writes Politics Counts as a regular Capital Journal feature. Mr. Chinni is the director of the American Communities Project at American University, which examines different types of communities across the U.S.
Watching football is a great uniter of Americans. But actually playing football? That’s a different story.
Opinion polls and football-participation data show huge splits in the country about who want their children to play, as well as big differences by state in how many kids take the field under the Friday night lights. In large part, these differences follow familiar geographic and political splits, with conservative parts of the country tending to embrace football playing, and more liberal parts souring on it.
For instance, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that urbanites, those in the Northeast and West and Democrats were among the most likely to say they would encourage their children to play a sport besides football due to concerns about concussions. Conversely, those who live in rural areas, the south and self-identified Republicans were the least likely to say they would discourage their children from playing football.
The gaps between some of those groups are remarkable. The split between Democrats and Republicans is 17 points, between those who live in urban and rural locations it’s 12 points.
And when you look at where high school students play football, you can see how some of those different attitudes translate to the field. We took the number of high school students who play football in every state, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, and compared it with the 15- to 19-year-old population in every state.
By that measure, eight of the top 10 states for football participation voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 (Mississippi, Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Alabama, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota). Only two, Iowa and Wisconsin, voted for Barack Obama.
On the other end, nine of the 10 lowest participation jurisdictions voted for Mr. Obama in 2012 (New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, D.C., Florida, Maryland, Nevada, California and New Hampshire). Out of the bottom 10, only Alaska voted for Mr. Romney.
There are obviously factors beyond politics influencing these numbers. In the top-20 states for high-school football participation, there were five states that voted for Mr. Obama in 2012 – Iowa and Wisconsin, along with Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. They are all Midwestern states with big state universities that play in the Big 10 athletic conference.
Still, the correlation between politics and play is still striking. And states’ views of football may continue to diverge, based on recent trends.
Many of the states with low participation rates have seen declines in the number of students playing football in the last few years, as concussions have become a bigger issue in the public discourse. New York’s numbers went from about 38,300 in 2007 to about 35,500 in 2013. California’s went from 108,100 to about 103,400 in that time. Maryland’s went from about 15,500 to about 14,300.
Meanwhile, some of those with higher levels of participation didn’t see a drop off and even saw more kids take to the gridiron. Texas went from 161,500 in 2007 to 165,500 in 2013. Alabama went from 22,000 in 2007 to 22,800 in 2013. Mississippi held steady at 22,300.