Written by: Nazli Mohideen
Sports are an undeniable aspect of high school culture. Between the late night practices, hype of letterman jackets, and inseparable bond among teammates, students often find themselves becoming athletes throughout their high school career.
For many, it’s their entire identity: working towards making Varsity, earning a scholarship to play their respective sport at the collegiate level, aspiring to become a professional athlete. For others, sports are an opportunity to try something new and meet different people. And for some, it’s simply a ticket to escape the craziness that is high school. Whatever the reason, high school-aged student athletes in New Jersey are an increasing trend, particularly in football, track and field, and basketball. But, why?
Even though participation in football has actually been on a steady decline over the past couple of years, the sport still pulls in a remarkable amount of athletes per season. Much of football’s popularity is enabled by mainstream media, showcasing Friday Night Lights with the student section packed, and idolizing the status of being either a football player or cheerleader.
Travis Key, a former defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts, recalls high school football as being the most authentic. As opposed to college football, which tends to be more business oriented, high school football is played out of pure love for the game. Most importantly, he notes the idea of “community pride” and having a personal connection with fans. Players may not be the most school-spirited themselves, but they still bring an entire community together. Coaches passionately mentor players and onlookers in the bleachers watch as their friends, classmates, and sometimes, students compete. Athletes take part in an unexpected brotherhood, playing with people in their hometown who they more than likely grew up playing the sport with, too. Above all, football largely reflects American culture, with millions tuning into the sport annually.
According to a survey conducted by The National Federation of State High School Associations, only 208 girls and 22,515 boys participated in high school football in 2018-19. The slight decrease from years prior is mainly due to safety concerns. Many players suffer injury during the playing season, such as concussions, drawing them to pull out of the sport.
Based on the National Federation of State High School Associations, it was found that football was the most popular sport for boys in New Jersey high schools for the 2018-19 academic year. Yet, the most popular sport for girls during the same time period was track and field. Roughly five years ago, track and field actually saw the largest increase in its participation count. Some athletes run track and field as a way to stay in shape during the offseason of their main sport, but other runners join since it is typically the easiest sport to start without having any previous sports experience.
Jiya Joshi, a Monroe Township High School senior and Junior Varsity cross country athlete, has shared a common experience with many of her other teammates. Growing up, she was never involved in sports, but once high school hit, she alongside plenty of her Asian teammates felt the need to join a sports team based on pressure from family. Joshi mentioned noticing parents putting their child in a sport starting at a young age which they then stick with years down the line. Missing out on this initial opportunity and not having what she described as a set of “cultivated skills” with a sport like soccer, for example, her parents put her in track and field. With Jersey’s strong Asian demographic, she suspects others were subjected to a similar path, making the sport so popular.
Basketball, finally, is the third most popular high school sport played in New Jersey. This is largely due to vast accessibility to the sport. Outside of a ball and hoop, there isn’t much equipment necessary and nearly every park, no matter how run-down of a neighborhood, almost always has a court to practice on. Skills can be practiced by oneself, but the game is ultimately played with a team. Contrary to football, the sport isn’t as physical and unlike track and field, athletes still take part in a team sport. Basketball is also relatively versatile since it can be played outdoors (weather permitting) or indoors in a gymnasium.
Of course, cheerleading and lacrosse are other popular high school sports as well. Surveys also don’t take into account sports played outside of school, other extracurriculars, jobs, etc. High school is all about exploring different opportunities.
Seasons come and go, players graduate, and coaches eventually retire, but the association of sports and high school is nothing short of legendary.