The Current State of House Football

Bringing house camaraderie, sportsmanship, and contact sports together, House Football at Lawrenceville has existed since 1892, making it the oldest active football league in the U.S. House Football has been featured in the film, The Happy Years, and even on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) in 1992.

Bringing house camaraderie, sportsmanship, and contact sports together, House Football at Lawrenceville has existed since 1892, making it the oldest active football league in the U.S. House Football has been featured in the film, The Happy Years, and even on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) in 1992. It is a signature Lawrenceville tradition in which III and IV Form boys in the Circle houses compete against each other during the fall season. Despite its great history and long-standing tradition, it faces modern challenges. The numbers have shown that House Football participation has declined as students have opted for other sports rather than the historic intramural football league. In recent years, there have been growing nationwide concerns about injuries in football. As a result, the sport has been losing popularity among high school students. According to The National Federation of State High School Associations, the total participation in 11-man high school football dropped by a difference of more than 30,000 students from the 2017-2018 to 2018- 2019 school year. Since the 2009-2010 school year, total 11-man football participants have dropped by over 100,000 players. Football’s nationwide participation is still by far the largest of any sport, totaling over 1,000,000 players in 2018- 2019, but this notable drop is still concerning.

Dropping from the original 11-man to 8-man, and now to the current 6-man per side football suggests that Lawrenceville’s House Football tradition does not have the participation it used to have. Director of Athletics Tripp Welborne III H’58 P’21 believes that House Football popularity has decreased due to an increasing number of interscholastic athletes. Last school year, there was a Lawrenceville record high of around 700 interscholastic athletes participating in at least one interscholastic sport. An increase in lifetime options has also given non-interscholastic athletes in the fall more intramural selections. For example, students now have options such as dance, karate, lifetime farming and are allowed to get athletic exemptions in the Fall Term, ultimately limiting the number of participants in House Football.

Additionally, students have been straying away from football due to the risk of injury. In a survey sent out by The Lawrence that received 91 total responses, out of 61 responses for a specific question, 36.1 percent of students considered injuries a negative part of their House Football experience. In the same survey, 53 percent of students said they “avoided playing House Football because of the risk of injury.” 30 percent of students have noted they have missed a game due to injury, which supports the idea that there is an evident risk for injury in House Football. Subsequently, many students found concern that House Football players do not have the experience and extensive practice with fundamental tackling techniques. Furthermore, an imbalance of varsity athletes versus less experienced athletes adds to the dangers of injury.

Interscholastic athletes have not only experienced how to properly avoid a tackle, but also the safe techniques on how to deliver a tackle. Additionally, in comparison to interscholastic football athletes, some House Football athletes believe they do not receive sufficient equipment to protect against injuries. The growing concern over injury, paired with the increasing options allows players to consider and play other sports, resulting in a decline in House Football participation.

The House Football league has been entrenched in the Lawrenceville School’s long list of traditions for over 120 years, and although it is evident that the league is losing numbers by the year, the league remains a cornerstone of Lawrenceville’s athletics and still instills house pride and spirit for those involved. In an interview with long-time House Football coach Ronald Kane ’83 P’20, he shared the top three attributes that House Football provides its players: to build and foster a sense of “house chemistry and unity,” to instill a “greater appreciation of playing football,” and to give the boys an opportunity to “have fun.” In a student survey, we posed the question: “For those who have played, what has been the best part of your House Football experience?” Out of 60 responses, 19 selected “Representing your house,” 16 selected “The Camaraderie,” and nine selected “The Satisfaction of Winning.” According to the 44 responses (73 percent of 60 total responses) mentioned above, most of the players involved in House Football believe that, to Kane’s point, the best part of house football is the sense of house pride and bonding that is built through the house football experience.

Lawrenceville prides itself on House and Harkness, and House Football is a reflection of those ideals. Through House Football, students are given an opportunity to build strong bonds with their Housemates, gain house pride, and cope with challenges through collective work.

Regarding issues of participation, House Football has made many modifications attempting to make the intramural sport safer and more enjoyable. They have eliminated kickoffs, decreased the size of the field, increased the initial down and distance yardage, and implemented a rule that former interscholastic football players cannot participate. In 2013, Lawrenceville had opted for a House Flag Football league in order to dramatically reduce injury risk. However, many alumni and graduates felt that Lawrenceville had compromised too much of its tenured tradition and so the original tradition was brought back.

Nevertheless, the problem persists: House Football’s participation is not what it once was due to a growing concern of injuries and increasing athletic opportunities. The sport should be made safer, which can be achieved by allocating more practice time towards teaching correct techniques and perhaps limiting the number of lifetime sports offered. However, regardless of the changes made to House Football, its core values of house spirit and camaraderie should not be compromised as they offer Lawrentians an opportunity to exemplify the Lawrenceville spirit.

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