With every new football season comes new rules. The 2015 season will see the following new rules put in to place.
Alaska, having one of the earliest High School football seasons gets to experience these first. In fact, our regular season ends in early October.
Last season’s rules changes dealt with kick formations and defenseless players. As we enter the 2015 season, I thought it would be interesting to share how we dealt with the 2014 changes.
The first rule changes were the free-kick formation and the run-up. Surprisingly, we had no penalties assessed related to these. One school has persisted in using the “bunch formation” but complied with the rule by splitting into two bunches on either side of the kicker. We found that with preventive officiating by the back judge, preparing the kicking team prior to the ready for play, and the referee observing the run-up from afar, there were no problems. We made it very clear that if the formation was illegal after the ready for play we would not allow the kick to occur. By week two or three we didn’t even need to discuss this further.
Another new rule and definition was the defenseless player. The rule added that a helmet-to-helmet hit against a defenseless player was an illegal personal contact foul. Being that safety has always been foremost in our minds, we were already calling this in the past. So the definition and rule gave it clarity but didn’t really change our actions. We have never allowed “free shots” or cheap shots.
Targeting was perceived to be the biggest challenge and led to much discussion in training. Defined as “taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder,” this was a new addition to illegal personal contact fouls. However, contact with a fist, forearm, and elbow already was accounted for (9-4-3j), and carried a more severe penalty (ejection). Leading with the helmet, above the shoulders or not, is spearing or butt blocking or face tackling and again, was already a penalty (9-4-3i). This is not to say that clarification is wrong but again it didn’t really change what we already were doing, except maybe raising awareness. It did eliminate the clothesline tackle.
Another change was added to roughing the passer, “no defensive player shall commit any illegal personal contact foul listed in 9-4-3 against a passer.” In prior years all the criteria in 9-4-3 would already have been called roughing the passer if directed at a passer. After some discussion we decided that we wouldn’t use 9-4-3m with a passer, rather we would call roughing the passer as it entails a more severe penalty on the offending team (tacking yardage onto the end of the run, and automatic first down). We have always lived by the motto “use the penalty that harms the offender the most”.
With new rules there is always angst about how that will affect officiating and how difficult it would be to adapt to change. The foremost concern in high school and youth football officiating is the safety of the players. Once the season started it became obvious that these changes were not difficult to adopt. In fact, it wasn’t much different than what we were already doing and didn’t result in many complaints from coaches or administrators. Having all our officials “being on the same page” was crucial.
Finally, I would like to add a personal view about the new emphasis on concussions. I have somewhat of a unique perspective as I have been an official for 15 years and a pediatrician for 34 years. I have seen the hit and the aftermath of the hit. At present, we know that there are long term consequences to concussions and multiple impacts. What we don’t know is how many is too many. Are there certain genetic factors that make one person more susceptible? How do we compare the Pro player experience to the college or the high school experience?
States are mandating numbers of days of contact and numbers of minutes of contact per day, but we don’t know what number is best. Logic would dictate that lessening the cumulative number of hits will help. An earnest effort on the part of all involved is necessary or parents will not let their kids play. We can help by enforcing the rules, but coaches and players need to buy into prevention. Remember that President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to outlaw football because of its brutality. If the game isn’t made safer, that may be exactly what happens.
Dr. Jeff Brand is a current member of the Alaska Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. He has officiated High School Football in Alaska for 15 years and has been selected many times to the football state championships.