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NFHS Writes Playing Rules for High School Sports - March 2009

By Bruce Howard

Since its founding in 1920, the chief function of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has been the writing and publishing of playing rules used for high school sports competition in the United States.

Today, the NFHS publishes playing rules in 17 sports for boys and girls competition, including baseball, basketball, cross country, field hockey, football, boys gymnastics, girls gymnastics, ice hockey, boys lacrosse, soccer, softball, spirit, swimming and diving, track and field, volleyball, water polo and wrestling.

To maintain the sound traditions of each sport, encourage sportsmanship and minimize the inherent risk of injury, the NFHS writes playing rules for varsity competition among student-athletes of high school age.  There are differences in high school rules from those of college and professional sports – and for good reasons.

The sheer numbers and varying skill levels of young people competing in high school sports demands adaptability and a strong focus on risk minimization. In football, for instance, more than one million young people compete in high school football at schools ranging in enrollment from 50 to 5,000 or more. High school rules stress a balance between offense and defense and emphasize fair play. In addition, ample lead time is given, if possible, to incorporate equipment or facility changes that require substantial expenditures on the part of high schools. 

An annual review of NFHS playing rules is conducted by the various sports rules committees, which are composed of coaches, officials and administrators. Most NFHS rules committees have 11 members – one voting member from each of the eight NFHS sections, plus a representative of the NFHS Officials Association, the NFHS Coaches Association and a chairperson. The Football Rules Committee is unique in its structure with one voting member from each state association that uses NFHS playing rules. 

Prior to the annual rules meeting in each sport, there is ample opportunity for coaches and officials, as well as administrators in state association offices, to submit rules proposals. Proposals for rules revisions usually come from rules committee members, state association staff members, NFHS rules editors or items from the annual questionnaire that is distributed to coaches and officials nationwide.

The NFHS distributes 1,000 rules questionnaires through member state associations to 500 coaches and 500 officials. The proportion of the 1,000 questionnaires distributed to each state is based on the number of schools participating in the particular sport in that state.

Part 1 of the questionnaire attempts to obtain feedback on rules revisions from the previous year, while Part 2 strives to determine new situations that have occurred in the current year. Part 3 looks at possible future rules revisions. Although rules committees are not bound by the results from the questionnaires, the committees give serious consideration to input from coaches and officials across the country.

The NFHS staff liaison in each sport sends a formal request for suggested rules changes to state associations and rules committee members. A preliminary agenda is developed and distributed to state associations and committee members. During this time, feedback is provided from state rules interpreters and state association staff. The NFHS staff liaison then develops a final agenda and distributes to state associations and committee members.

After the committee meets and votes on rules changes for the coming season, the proposed changes are submitted to the NFHS Rules Review Committee and then to the NFHS Board of Directors for final approval. Approved rules changes become effective with the next school year, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Once the changes have been approved by the Board of Directors, a news release is distributed and the information is posted on the NFHS Web site. Production of the various rules publications begins after the conclusion of the meeting, and the rules book in each sport is distributed approximately three months after the rules meeting. 

In addition to rules books, other publications are printed in most sports, such as case books, officials manuals, handbooks and simplified and illustrated rules. Case books are published separately in baseball, basketball, football, softball, and track and field as a supplement to the rules books. These books contain actual play situations.

Officials manuals are made available in baseball, basketball, football, softball, and track and field on an every-other-year basis. These manuals are directed specifically to individuals who want to enter the avocation of officiating or for those who wish to improve their competence in the sport. Handbooks are published every two years in football and basketball. These publications contain brief histories of the sport, procedures followed in developing the rules and an emphasis on the philosophy of the rules committees.

Simplified and Illustrated Rules and Rules By Topic publications are produced in baseball, basketball and football. The Rules By Topic publications address complex rules and organize the rules by category, providing officials, umpires and others with support information to better understand – and apply – the rules.

State associations voluntarily choose to adopt playing rules written by NFHS rules committees. NFHS rules leave to the state associations the responsibility for adoption of rules or standards regulating eligibility, discipline, awards, size of squads, tournament entry and advancement, and modifications for sub-varsity play.

Opportunity does exist for “grassroots” involvement in the NFHS rules-writing process. Athletic directors, principals and coaches are urged to contact their state association representative regarding any possible rules proposals. State association staff members then submit formal rules proposals to the NFHS staff liaison. 

Without a doubt, risk minimization is the single most important consideration for NFHS rules committee. Most recently, the NFHS Football Rules Committee added the horse-collar tackle to the list of illegal personal contact fouls and prohibited coaches from being in the restricted area along the sideline during a live-ball situation. This will provide officials an open area to move up and down the sideline and reduces the risk of injury.

Additional information on the NFHS rules-writing process, as well as lists of rules changes, points of emphasis and rules interpretations in all sports, are available on the NFHS Web site at Individuals interested in ordering any NFHS rules publications can call the toll-free phone number at 800-776-3462 or order online at

Bruce Howard is director of publications and communications and co-editor of High School Today.


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