Rules of the Game

I have waited about five days to collect my thoughts on this and honestly let my emotions calm a bit.  As some know I can be a bit outspoken and harsh at times but I wanted to refrain from letting emotion get in the way of an important message.  Yes, this post will be mainly about football, but don’t view it as an attack on the sport so many of us, including me, love.

This season across all the levels of play in football there has been a larger emphasis placed on player safety, most notably contact to and with the head while playing football.  It is a FACT that the helmet in football was designed and remains a protective device not a weapon or offensive piece of equipment.  Using the helmet in the later fashion is and should always be a penalty for both sides of the ball.  This is nothing new; since the mid 1970’s “spearing”, “face tackling” and “butt-blocking” (scroll to page 32 of that link) have been outlawed in the sport.  However, routinely those events on the football field are rarely called, now in 2013 there is an emphasis on these types of infractions.  Now there is a caveat of this type of action on the field called “targeting” which at the college level can have a player ejected if egregious enough. (BTW, that picture is a placard that was made in 70’s)

Before I go further, I would like to say that officiating at the high school and lower levels is a thankless job.  The pay is not life changing and most do it as a hobby.  Sure, I have seen some officials that the game has passed by or is too fast for them, but I have also seen men and women that do Yeoman’s work with nothing more than a handshake for a job well done.  It’s not easy folks, I have done it, but done correctly and consistently it is a thing of beauty.  At the college and pro levels these people do great work and often have other jobs besides being on TV and getting players, coaches and fans mad at them.  I can assure you they are doing the best they can.  But, I feel the game of football resides in their and coaches hands, for survival.

At the high school level in our state I know that officials have been told to watch out for targeting and the use of the helmet above the shoulders; this has helped at the cost of adjudicating the other, more established rules from the 70’s.  I have seen four flags in five games for “targeting”/”spearing” above the shoulders; I have seen zero flags for “spearing” when it was below the shoulders.  I didn’t write down every occurrence of these types of tackles in each of my games, however, I can vividly recollect at least 10 instances of spearing on both teams.  Side note here, if I see one of our players do it they get quite the ass chewing from me on the sidelines.

People need to realize that tackling with the head-down is not a safety measure for the person getting tackled, it is a safety measure for the tackler.  Placing the neck in a neutral position then applying a massive axial load (see .gif) can lead to catastrophic cervical neck injury.  It also provides some safety for the one being tackled as well; case-in-point at one of our games our WR had his ribs exposed due to a catch and an opposing player lowered his head like a ram and placed the crown of the helmet in his rib cage.  That should have been a spearing call, period.  The defender could have had the same effect had the shoulder been in place of the crown of the helmet.

The point I am trying to make is simple, officials need to call the rules on the books (coaches need to stop coaching illegal tackling techniques).  Although I believe I am astute observer I can be backed up by the National Athletic Trainers Association and their study into this matter;

On Tuesday, the NATA declared that while professional, collegiate and high school football organizations have done a “commendable job” crafting rules against dangerous head-first hits, “enforcement of these rules regrettably is uneven and infrequent.”

If the hits that paralyze an average of eight to 14 high school and college athletes per year are to be driven from the game, the athletic trainers warned, coaches are going to have to step up their efforts to discourage them and league officials are going to have to call them and penalize them more often.

“Spearing” has been a penalty in high school and National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA) football since the mid-1970s. As evidence of the dangers of the practice have mounted, the National Football League in 2010 updated and tightened its rules against head-first contact.

Does it take the initiative of “Heads Up Football” to change the way tackling is done?  I don’t know, it has been harped upon since the 70’s under different guises yet we have not seen an eradication of the action as of yet.  I tend to believe what the NATA is saying; proper enforcement, 15 yard penalties are huge, of the rules will help cease this action.

To the men and women in stripes, thank you for your tireless efforts, but the game may sooner rather than later be in your hands.


6 thoughts on “Rules of the Game

  1. Michael Hopper September 18, 2013 / 09:36

    I’m glad the officiating has been good up in your area. Unfortunately, it remains poor down here. No necessarily “spearing” but other head-targeting contacts and the horse-collar penalties remain uncalled. It’s clear (from listening to their explanation) that many of these officials do not understand the rule itself.

  2. Jason Viel September 18, 2013 / 13:14

    I would agree with Mike unfortunately up here in the Quad Cities I see more and more officials not calling targeting or spearing or even horse collar penalties because they try to explain that it wasn’t specifically that penalty and go into their explanation of what they believe it should be. I get fed up with running backs lowering their head as they “hit the hole” and linebackers lowering their heads as they “meet the running back” to me this is a double penalty for spearing and targeting and should result in loss of down and ejection for some period of time for both players. Not an offsetting penalty because both players are at fault and need to learn the seriousness of their actions.

    • Michael Hopper September 18, 2013 / 14:17

      Jason, I have gone as far as I now have the Horse-Collar slide from the IHSA on my phone…

  3. Scott L. Bruce September 19, 2013 / 17:47

    I spoke to our local high school officiating association about this very issue prior to the season. I agree that officiating is a thankless job and I believe they truly want to get the calls right. But I have yet to see any “spearing” calls made this year, but I have also seen fewer head first hits this year than in the past.
    Like Dustin I have harped on this issue since the early days of my career, (early 80’s). At one point during a Division II football game I was screaming at an official about an opposing player consistently leading with his head and he needed to call the penalty. After letting me go for awhile, he finally turned to me and said, “When I see it called in the Big Ten and the Big East I will start to call it here!” I could not believe his arrogance, but I have never forgotten it either.
    I encourage all athletic trainers to just keep screaming about this issue until finally the officials hear us. I also encourage all athletic trainers to confront their own players when they catch someone on their own team leading with their head. Many of my athletes today know what they did when they see me coming at them after making a tackle and leaving the field.

    • Dustin Fink September 20, 2013 / 09:55

      Right on Scott! I agree with you!

  4. Michael Hopper September 20, 2013 / 13:43

    Scott, I would agree as well! In a freshmen game last night, our running back dropped his head to make contact. It wasn’t as obvious as some, but it was one that the official told our coaches to correct because next time it would be called. Guess what? It didn’t happen again!

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