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The Lost Generation of High School Athletes

Lost Generation | 1980s high school sports

Weber High School football team plays to a largely empty stadium, 1983 | Source: WHS Yearbook, Chicago

In the late 1980s, the Illinois High School Sports Association created a file about the growing lack of interest in high school sports like basketball, football, and baseball. Struggling to understand the empty stadiums and gymnasiums, they labeled the folder The Lost Generation.

Back in 1987, Phil English was a sports reporter for the Northwest Herald. He covered the situation in a four-part series. Here were some of the key facts he reported:

  • The role of the family as primary spectator was lost. (In 1987, the parents and grandparents of the Gen-Xers playing sports were Baby Boomers or Traditionalists — often referred to as the Silent or Lucky Generation.
  • 20- to 30 year-olds did not attend high school games. (In 1987, this included late wave Boomers born between 1957  and 1960 and first wave Gen-Xers born between 1960 and 1967.)
  • Students (in 1987, exclusively Gen X) were pulled in a multitude of directions and did not attend high school games with the same frequency or fervor as the generations who came before them.
  • More girls participated in sports, which divided spectators and possibly contributed to declining numbers at the all-boys games. Also, more kids specialized in sports outside of school. 
  • For the first time, high school sports competed with a wide availability of professional sports on TV.
  • More students worked part-time jobs, which may have contributed to smaller fan-bases. 
  • A growing number of alternative forms of entertainment such as cable TV and movie rentals lured fans away.
  • People were no longer energized or entertained by the games. 
  • A lack of leadership from local and state sports associations may have contributed to the problem.

Although English did a good job reporting on the problem, there was a large gap in his research. He never mentioned the low birth rate of the so-called lost generation (Generation X). The wide availability of oral contraceptives coupled with the legalization of abortion in 1973, contributed to a dramatic decline in births between 1965 and 1975. This created a shortage of teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s. With fewer players to cheer for at games the adult-fan base also dwindled.

The other thing English didn’t explore about the lost generation was the lack of parental guidance and/or parental participation during the “teen shortage.” After all, these young people were members of the Baby Bust generation of latchkey kids. A lost generation of children adversely impacted by divorce.

Fathers left. Mothers worked.

Lost Generation of High School Athletes: 1980s-cheerleaders

More photos from a the 1983 WHS yearbook show an empty stadium. | Source: WHS, Chicago

1980s-cheerleaders-empty-stands

The Illinois High School Sports Association regarded the lost generation of high school athletes as a serious problem that threatened the future of high school sports. They created special products and events to bolster attendance. They elevated high school bands, pom pom squads, etc., at games. One official with IHSSA saw mothers as the primary solution to the problem:

“If somebody was really crafty, they’d get the mothers organized, explain to them how different sports worked and how they can get involved.”

Because mothers back then didn’t know how sports worked. Ha. But, I digress. 

Were you part of this lost generation of athletes?

I’m curious what you think. How did homes broken by divorce contribute to the lost generation of high school athletes? Did you play sports in high school? If not, how come? Thank you in advance for sharing your story.


I was so lost, I should have died
But You have brought me to Your side
To be led by Your staff and rod
And to be called a lamb of God
Hear this song here.
Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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8 Comments

  1. Matt

    I played football in one of the classic Indiana industrial basketball cities (Anderson). While only the band parents primarily showed up for football (the band might have beaten a couple teams I played on), the basketball games remained attractions drawing up to 9,000 people. However, the crashing Rust Belt economy — in 1982, when I was in 8th grade, Anderson unemployment was 21 percent — changed everything. I don’t recall a decline of sports participation anywhere around me in the mid-80s, but the recession must have played some kind of role, at least in the Midwest.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      Interesting the difference between basketball and football. I think there were so many varied reasons for the decline and it was certainly episodic and contained to certain communities. Just ghost-like thinking about those stadiums being emptied and the sadness of playing to a small crowd. When I look at pictures of football games back then, there’s row after row of empty bleachers. I never noticed this until I researched this post – and I’ve looked at thousands of pictures of Gen-Xers over the last decade — maybe hundreds of thousands.

      Reply
  2. MMazenko

    Hmmm. That wasn’t really my experience in higjh school from 84-88. At a small Catholic school in St Louis area (but Illinois side), sports participation was pretty strong. And I did two sports, as did many peers. The issue I saw rise in those years was the emergence of and growing influence of club sports. That issue brought a radical transformation of high school sports by decreasing multi-sport participation, and requiring earlier specialization among young kids. If anything, that’s the legacy of Gen X

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      His research did mention specialization in sports as one of the reasons audience attendance was down along with student participation. He (Phil English, the reporter) did cite an old rule that did not allow kids from the Boomer generation to play sports outside of school while playing for the school team. That rule, for whatever reason, was relaxed for Generation X. So, definitely, that had an impact. That’s an interesting idea it being part of our legacy. I need to think about that some. I know club soccer was big back in the day, but I think that’s because there were no school-sponsored teams yet. I also think the problem varied from rural to urban and public to parochial. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
  3. Marty Rogin

    Yep. Hit that one on the head. I was never a real athlete, but had to go to all the football games as a band member. It seemed like nobody cared much. Pep rallies were a disaster. My parents never watched me on the field, but they attended some of my band concerts. Their priority for me was to get a job, which I did through much of high school.

    They even closed one of the three high schools in our district during my tenure due to declining enrollment. 15 years later, the district built multi-million dollar additions on the remaining two high schools due to changing demographics and immigration.

    Go figure. BTW – this was in Illinois. The shuttered school was featured in Sixteen Candles and Risky Business before it was demolished. What a waste. Nice art-deco building.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      Oh, no. It’s like some reverse poetic justice nightmare — that the building featured in not one, but two iconic Gen X movie was demolished because our generation was too small, too “insignificant” to fill it. How awful. Now, there’s an idea for a blog post, Marty!! Thanks for sharing that with me.

      When I looked for pictures to go with this post it took me no less than five minutes to find one with a football game with empty stadiums. I don’t think that photo is random. It’s an accurate portrayal of the times.

      I was thinking of my brother today — how he didn’t go out for sports. He was born in 1962 — first wave Gen X. He worked at a local grocery store — brought milk home for the family on his meager earnings. All of us kids contributed to the food pantry, such as it was. I remember him telling me stories about how mean his bosses were — how strict they were about his haircuts. He had a hard time…joined the Marines at 17. Feels like a long time ago. I missed him so much after left. I was 12, and, well, the world was a dark place even then.

      Thanks, again, for the story. I can’t believe they demolished an art deco high school.

      Reply
      • Marty Rogin

        Glad I could inspire someone! The story does have a good ending. As a result of the consolidated high schools, I met my future wife.

        If you are interested, you can look up Niles East high school in Skokie, IL. There should be some pics online.

        Reply
        • Jennifer

          I love a happy ending. I’ll look it up. Thanks, again!

          Reply

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