Game Change

Category: Innovation (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: HBO Real Sports

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 29/01/2019

Credit: Josh Fine, Nisreen Habbal

Project description:

“Game Change” explores the changing face of America’s most popular and violent sport – football – a decade into the game’s concussion crisis.

Real Sports spent over a year filing public records requests to school districts around the country, seeking demographic data on boys playing the game. We found that over the last five years there has been a marked shift in exactly who is participating, with decreases among middle- and upper-class boys but increases — both as a percentage and a raw number — in participation by the poor.

Impact reached:

This was the first report of any kind – in journalism or academia – to show with actual data the shift in participation in American football. The story not only lays out the incontrovertible numbers that document this shift, but also considers the implications – not only for the game of football, but more importantly, for the disadvantaged young boys who are increasingly filling football rosters, and facing the risks that come with it. The segment further explores how the leaders of football in America, including the NCAA and the NFL, have responded to this trend by increasingly courting children and parents from the poorest and least educated communities in America. For example, the IRS form 990s of the NFL’s 32 teams show millions of dollars of contributions to tackle football leagues in in some of the poorest and least-educated communities in the country. It’s a finding that troubled public health experts, as studies show that parents in these communities have the least information and education about the risks of the game. The report had a significant impact on the public discourse. Journalists, policy makers, and the leaders of think tanks extensively referenced our research and reporting, noting the first-of-its-kind import. The Atlantic’s Patrick Hruby wrote: “Last night Real Sports ran a must-watch segment on how high school football may be following the path of boxing: wealthy families and kids are abandoning the sport, while poorer families and kids are not. It fleshes out – with data! – what many people who cover and think about football and brain injuries have suspected for a while: richer families are pulling their kids, poorer family aren’t. Highly recommend watching it.” The Aspen Institute’s Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Sports and Society program, wrote: “Must watch… Terrific reporting through use of

Techniques/technologies used:


For nearly a decade, academics, policy makers, and journalists have been trying to answer a relatively simple question: As society learns more about the dangers of American football, will parents and children of financial means turn away from the game, leaving only disadvantaged families to assume its risks? We too have wondered about the answer to this question. After years of searching for useful data and finding that there wasn’t any, we decided to try to get the data ourselves.

The first step was to figure out what type of data might be available – on file with government institutions and subject to FOIA requests – that could shed light on the financial means of the families of the boys who play youth football. After a few false starts, we learned that most schools’ databases give each student an anonymized identifying number—a number that can then be cross-referenced with both their participation in the school’s free or reduced-price lunch program and their participation in extra-curricular activities. What’s more, most schools were required to keep this data for at least five years.

The second step was figuring out how to get a statistically-significant data sample. We decided we’d choose a state, and then send FOIA requests to each and every school district in that state. After consulting with experts, we settled on the state of Illinois —  a state with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas; a blend of white, black, and Latino residents; and a long tradition of football.

As a check on our work—and to make sure Illinois wasn’t anomalous–we filed hundreds of additional FOIA requests, many to the largest school districts in the country. We also filed FOIA requests to the top performing school districts in nearly every state.

What was the hardest part of this project?

This story took over a year to report. The difficulty stemmed from the fact that we needed to acquire participation data through public records requests, and we needed to make sure the data we acquired was statistically significant.

After feeling like we had control of the available data at the high school level (see above) we turned our attention to the college game. We submitted FOIA requests to the schools in the country’s two most lucrative conferences, the SEC and the Big Ten. There we found a 25% growth in the number of low-income scholarship football players since the concussion crisis began (as measured by the percent of those players who were eligible for Pell grants). In addition, we analyzed the NCAA’s data on race and participation in football, and found that in the highly educated Ivy League the number of black football players is in fact up 50% since 2010, while the number of white football players has fallen significantly.

The final stage of our reporting process involved trying to tease out how the NFL tries to keep participation in the sport robust. By combing through thousands of pages of IRS Form 990s, we found millions of dollars of contributions by the NFL and its teams to tackle football leagues in some of the poorest and least-educated communities in the country. It’s a finding that troubled public health experts, as studies show that parents in these communities have the least information and education about the risks of the game.

What can others learn from this project?

After receiving responses from the majority of districts in the state, we sent our data to two experts with strong statistical backgrounds. The first, Dr. Emily Kroshus, who was ultimately featured in the HBO report, studies participation patterns in youth sport. The second, Dr. Stephanie Cook, is a biostatistician with extensive experience studying data in low-income communities. Both experts confirmed the statistical significance of our findings.

Throughout the process we looked to buttress our reporting with any available studies on related topics. One such study found that the availability of flag football in a community – as a theoretically safer alternative to tackle football – is tied to the education levels of the parents who live there. Another found low-income families to be far more likely to think about the possibility of a college scholarship when choosing which sport to enroll their sons in to play, even at a young age.

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