Connor Nunley could see it in himself, even as a sixth- and seventh-grader. Select soccer was stressing him out.
As an 11-year-old with varied interests, he gave up football, baseball, basketball and gymnastics at one point or another because of the demands of playing goalkeeper for the Dallas Texans. And it was wearing on more than just Nunley.
“We quit going to church, it was taking up so much of our time,” Connor’s mother, Lorine Nunley, said. “The atmosphere is real intense when you’re a part one of those teams. Long practices five nights a week, and every weekend, the tournaments. He might play six games in two days.”
The pull on his family’s time was one thing, but the intensity of the select soccer dynamic was what finally made Nunley quit after starting at a recreational level when he was 4. After his team won a tournament two years ago, Nunley said his coach pulled him aside and yelled at him for allowing a goal in the championship game. He had kept clean sheets in every other game of the tournament.
We quit going to church, it was taking up so much of our time.
Lorine Nunley, whose son Connor, as a youngster, was stressed by the time demands of select soccer
“That kind of intensity, I could tell it was getting to me,” he said. “I was getting really angry and frustrated at things I shouldn’t have. My mom would try to talk to me, and I would just yell at her.”
Nunley had had enough.
“I was missing out on a lot of social things, and I just wasn’t happy,” Nunley said.
And now, Connor Nunley plays tenor saxophone in the Red Oak High School marching band. No more sports for the natural athlete.
“Band is more fun than soccer,” Connor said. “The kids in band are like a big family, and the band directors make it clear they care a lot about us.”
Across the country, kids are giving up sports. One in five kids 6 to 17 were inactive in 2014, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The number of youth football players fell 17.9 percent from 2009-14. Volleyball numbers plunged 21.6 percent, softball was off 11.2 percent, and basketball fell 6.8 percent.
20 Percent of kids 6 to 17 who were inactive in 2014.
And in Texas, high school participation has failed to keep pace with booming enrollment, according to figures from the Texas Education Agency and the National Federation of High Schools.
While Texas’ high school enrollment grew 26.76 percent from 2004 to 2014, high school sports participation was up just 8.72 percent, and the number of football players grew 2.97 percent.
Most sports leagues are trying to encourage youths to play, as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told the Wall Street Journal in 2015: “The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game.”
Youth participation is so important to the NFL that it has a director of youth football and is spending $1 million on flag football programs and $2 million on trainers to instruct gym teachers on the game.
USA Football’s “Heads Up” program teaches players proper techniques and other safety measures. In the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys are among the teams leading the charge on player safety.
At the Arlington Optimist Club, which has been fielding teams since 1946, the number of baseball teams has fallen from more than 200 in the early 2000s to about 25 the past two years, said Robbie King, an Optimist board member who runs the leagues.
The number of football teams — about 16 per grade level in the early 2000s — has fallen by half.
Neighboring organizations have experienced similar struggles. Fort Worth and Grand Prairie Optimist Clubs are joining Arlington to play games in order to fill teams’ schedules.
High cost a factor
Robert Lowe, the eighth-grade football coach at McClung Middle School in Fort Worth, said he’s noticed a decline since the school opened in 2011.
“We’re having to recruit kids out of the hallways. You actively have to pursue these kids to get them to come out,” he said. “It’s not like it was decades ago, when everyone wanted to go out for football.”
We’re having to recruit kids out of the hallways. You actively have to pursue these kids to get them to come out.
Robert Lowe, eighth-grade football coach at McClung Middle School in Fort Worth
This year, about 30 boys played eighth-grade football; 25 were on the seventh-grade team.
“We’ve only ever been able to field an ‘A’ team,” Lowe said.
At Riverside Middle School, football coach Michael Moseley sees costs and time affecting participation.
“I don’t think people have that disposable income,” he said. “Parents are working more, maybe both are working, so sometimes they don’t have time to get back and forth to practices. Other times, financially, there are parents who don’t have $100 for pee-wee baseball, so those kids aren’t exposed to organized sports from a young age and don’t consider starting in middle school because they’re not at the level, skill-wise or physical fitness-wise, as those who have been involved longer.”
LPGA golfer and Fort Worth native Angela Stanford used golf as a way to get a college education, and hopes that future generations see what type of benefits sports can provide.
“I just can’t see this country without sports. It’s just too embedded in our lifestyles,” said Stanford, who went to Saginaw Boswell. “I’m not worried about it. For me, I needed to find a way to get to college. And sports was my avenue. So I think, as long as there are kids out there who are trying to get an education, sports should be pretty secure. The thing that worries me is that I hear that high schools are making kids pay [to participate in] sports now.
“It bothers me that schools are limiting these kids because of money. If there’s any reason why sports won’t grow, I think it has to do with that.”
Staff writer Jimmy Burch contributed to this report.
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7760, @MCTinez817