Some would argue that football has supplanted baseball as America’s pastime. According to statistics, football is played by more than 1 million boys in American high schools and over 2100 girls participate in the sport. With boys as young as 5-6 years old strapping on a helmet every year for their introduction to tackle football, it’s easy to see that we have a love for this game. When you add in the legions of fans that show their loyalty to high school, college, and professional programs throughout the country, there is very little doubt that football is king. This game affects a lot of people.
Even with its popularity, no one would disagree that football is a dangerous sport. One of the reasons that we love it so much is the very reason that makes it problematic – it’s a contact sport. Many would argue that football is not merely a contact sport, it’s a collision sport – often leaving players badly injured. Injuries have included torn ligaments, broken bones, temporary or permanent paralysis, heat strokes, or even death. Because of these injuries, more attention is being given to making the game safer.
In recent years, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), along with state associations have implemented rules intended to address safety concerns. Just this week, the NFHS adopted new blocking and kicking rules to minimize the risk of injury. Bob Colgate, director of sports medicine at the NFHS, said “The NFHS Football Rules Committee’s actions this year once again addressed risk minimization, officiating, competitive balance and game administration.”
Two rules that are sure to raise eyebrows across the coaching spectrum as well as frustrate officials (that are charged with enforcing the rules) is the new definition of blindside blocking and the rule that prohibits the practice (Rule 2-3-10 and Rule 9-4-3n). According to the NFHS, the definition of a blindside block is “a block against an opponent other than the runner, who does not see the blocker approaching.” Violation of the rule now incurs a 15-yard penalty. The Rules Committee outlaws this type of blocking because it “involves contact by a blocker against an opponent who, because of physical positioning and focus of concentration, is vulnerable to injury. Unless initiated with open hands, it is a foul for excessive and unnecessary contact when the block is forceful and outside of the free-blocking zone.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Some fear that this type of language would drive further animosity between officials and coaches and make it very difficult to enforce due to subjective interpretation. When asked about the rule changes, a recently retired official stated, “the rule reads if a player “doesn’t see it coming.” How is an official going to know what a kid sees? New rules also state that you can’t hit a QB in the motion of throwing, a receiver who has caught the ball and not become a runner (jumps to catch and is hit before he comes down), the intended receiver immediately following an interception, and a player in the grasp of another tackler once forward progress has been stopped (whether he is still trying to gain yards or not). These scenarios happen on 75% of plays, especially pass plays. These rules make it almost impossible to discern and officiate properly, and will cause nothing but division between coaches and officials. A kid gets hit and his coach is going to want a penalty. If it’s flagged the coach is going to complain it was legal. It’s just too gray.”
The NFHS Rules Committee also adopted a rule that may dramatically affect the outcome of a game by eliminating the onside kick. Specifically, the new rule targets “pop-up” kicks made during kickoffs. These types of kicks are popular late in a game when a team is feverishly attempting to make a comeback. The logic behind the rule is sound because whenever this kick is performed, all receivers are focused on the “popped-up” ball and not the tackler that is barrelling down on them. These types of collisions may result in avoidable injuries, according to some. The rule states that a pop-up kick is “a free kick in which the kicker drives the ball immediately to the ground, the ball strikes the ground once and goes into the air in the manner of a ball kicked directly off the tee.” According to the NFHS, the committee “implemented this change in an effort to reduce risk of injury due to the increased use of the pop-up kick on onside kickoffs. Such kicks will be penalized as a dead-ball free-kick infraction, as noted with new Rule 6-1-11 PENALTY.”
The remainder of the rules changes can be found at the NFHS website.
Regardless of your opinion on the new rules, there is no doubt the game of football is changing. How will coaches adapt to these new rules? Will it result in changed player behavior? How will officials interpret the changes? And will the millions of fans across the country see the latest changes as a slow, incremental approach to dramatically altering the game they love?