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AFM Magazine

The Safety Rulebook

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While coaches can take an active role in injury prevention by coaching safer tackling and blocking techniques, football’s governing bodies can have a lasting impact for all teams by tweaking rules designed to ensure player safety.

Governing organizations – including the NCAA, the National Federation of High Schools, and Pop Warner – have instituted new rules that go into effect this fall to help ensure the safety of players.


The NCAA approved a number of new rules to help overall safety.

- The Player Rules Oversight Panel approved moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line starting this fall (from the 30). Players on the kicking team cannot line up for the kickoff behind the 30 yard line, which is intended to limit the running start by kicking teams. Touchbacks will be moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20 to encourage more touchbacks. The recommended changes came from the Football Rules Committee after that group analyzed NCAA data showing that injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.

“Our data shows that the kickoff return is the most dangerous play in football with regard to concussions,” said Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s National Coordinator of Officials. “We feel that moving the kickoff to the 35 and having the touchback moved to the 25 will discourage kickoff returns. Our data also indicated that the average return on a kickoff that is run out of the end zone is about 22 yards. This will encourage more players to take a knee and start at the 25.”

- If a player loses his helmet, it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game and is not allowed to participate in the next play. Additionally, he cannot continue to participate in the play.
“We found that a helmet pops off about two times a game,” said Redding. “This rule, hopefully, will help player safety but also remind coaches and players to have properly-fitted helmets.”

- The rules panel also approved new wording in the football rule book regarding blocking below the waist. Offensive players in the tackle box at the snap who are not in motion are allowed to block below the waist legally without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions such as straight-ahead blocks. These rules will help protect the player’s knees.

- There is also a new rule prohibiting players from leaping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt. Receiving team players trying to jump over a shield blocking scheme has become popular. In some cases, these players make contact and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders.


Football is the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level with 1,134,377 participants in the 2010-2011 school year according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The NFHS establishes high school rules in most states. Texas and Massachusetts, however, follow the rules laid out by the NCAA.

Many rule differences for high school football are in place to address the physical differences between teenagers and adults. Although safety is a priority at every level, high school football requires an extra measure of caution as many players are still learning the fundamentals and techniques of the game.

Here are specific rules changes scheduled for the start of the 2012 season:

- Similar to the new college rule, high school players must sit out one play if their helmet comes off while the ball is live. This was one of eight rules changes approved over the winter by the National Federation of State High School Associations Football Rules Committee. “The committee made this rules change after reviewing data from multiple states regarding the frequency of helmets coming off during live play,” said Julian Tackett, chair of the Football Rules Committee. “It is the committee’s hope that this serves notice for schools to properly fit players with helmets to reduce the incidence of these situations and remind the players not to take steps that alter the fit.”

“There was a game last fall when one player’s helmet popped off seven times,” said Bob Colgate, the NFHS Director of Sports and Sports Medicine and liaison to the Football Rules Committee. “A proper fit is a critical issue for both coaches and players.”

- A risk-minimization change was also made to a rule for blocking below the waist. According to Colgate, “The previous interpretation was that it was not a foul for a player to block below the waist if the hand(s) of the opponent was first contacted below the waist. This revision changes that interpretation and stipulates that such action is a foul.”

- Another new rule prohibits members of the kicking team from initiating contact (blocking) against members of the receiving team until the ball has broken the plane of the receiving team’s restraining line, or until the kicking team is eligible to recover the kick.

- An additional rule change now states that grasping the tooth and mouth protector – in addition to the face mask – is a foul.

 The NFHS also has implemented a standard rule change in all sports dealing with concussions in student-athletes:

Any athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion (such as loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, confusion or balance problems) shall be immediately removed from the contest and shall not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health-care professional. Suggested guidelines for the Management of Concussions is located in the back of each NFHS Rules Book.

The NFHS has a suggested concussion management policy, once it has been determined that a player has been concussed:

1.  No athlete should return to play or practice the same day of a concussion.

2. Any athlete suspected of having a concussion should be evaluated by an appropriate healthcare professional that day.

3. Any athlete with a concussion should be medically cleared by an appropriate health-care professional prior to resuming participation in any practice or competition.

4. After medical clearance, return to play should follow a step-wise protocol with provisions for delayed return to play based upon the return of any signs or symptoms.

The NFHS also announced the launching of a ‘Guide to Acclimatization and Heat Illness Prevention.’ This free course is available at

Individual States
– Rule Changes

- Georgia is banning three-a-day football practices and will fine schools that violate new guidelines aimed at keeping student-athletes from succumbing to heat. Another rule states that two-a-day practices can’t occur on consecutive days or exceed five hours in a single day and practicing in pads is limited to three hours a day. The GHSA established new guidelines that require players to go through five practices in only helmets, shirts and shorts before going to full pads. The new rules came after University of Georgia researchers reported increases in player deaths nationwide in recent years.

- Mandated by the Texas High School Coaches Association, coaches are now required to have two hours of concussion education training. The concussion and education course must be fulfilled by September lst. The coach must then provide documentation of attendance to the independent school district superintendent. The training will then continue with training sessions required every two years.

- The Washington State Football Coaches Association proposed a pilot program for summer practices, asking high school teams to cut down the number of practice days from as many as 48 to 20 – which will also cut down the number of hits young players will take before the season even starts. The program is voluntary but the Coaches Association hopes pressure from parents will be enough to convince coaches to give it a try.

- Similar to Georgia, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association passed a proposal that requires a heat policy for all member schools. In essence, the TSSAA Heat Policy prohibits schools from practicing or competing when the heat index is in excess of 104 degrees.

Pop Warner

According to Jon Butler, the Executive Director of Pop Warner football for the last 21 years, there were 285,000 participants last season, ages 5-15. To reduce head injuries, two new rules will limit the amount of contact allowed and the way players hit each other.

- There will be no full-speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than three yards apart. You may have two linemen in stances immediately across the line of scrimmage from each other and you can have full speed drills where the players approach each other at an angle, but not straight ahead into each other. Intentional head-to-head contact is forbidden.

- Coaches must limit the amount of contact at each practice to a maximum of 1/3 of practice time (either 40 minutes total of each practice or 1/3 of total weekly practice time). In this context, “contact” means any drill or scrimmage in which players go full-speed with contact – e.g., one-on-one blocking and/or tackling drills, down linemen vs. down linemen full-speed drills, and/or scrimmages.

Pop Warner is also re-emphasizing an existing rule barring players from leading with their heads when they block and tackle. Emphasizing proper tackling techniques, Pop Warner has also adopted the phrase, ‘Get the Head Out of Football.’ According to Butler, Pop Warner had a total of 11 reported concussions in 2008 and 2009 and only three reported in 2011.

Reducing the amount of hitting in practice will cut down on the exposure to potential head injuries which can be caused by both big hits that lead to concussions and also from smaller, repeated impacts, doctors said. “This is the best way we know to immediately and instantly cut that exposure,” said Julian Bailes, chairman of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board and co-director of the North Shore Neurological Institute in Chicago.

Bailes said that concussions can be even more dangerous for young athletes that adults. “We think so because of the immature and still developing and remodeling of the brain.” 


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