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Commentary


The Problem with the NCAA Helmet-Contact Rule Changes
By Jon Heck, MS, ATC

Alright, let me first say the NCAA Football Rules Committee deserves credit for attempting to improve the helmet-contact rules. This is only the second change to these rules since 1976. They also should be credited with accepting input from the NATA/AFCA Task Force on Spearing. I don't want anyone to think I'm a spoil sport. That being said ...

When you get right down to it, the NCAA's 2005 changes to the helmet-contact rules didn't really change much. They did take out the word “intentional” from each of the three rules. On the surface this appears to be a good thing. However, if you look a little closer you see they replaced it with “attempt to punish the opponent”. Take a peek ....

2005 Rules
1. Spearing is the use of the helmet (including the face mask) in an attempt to punish an opponent.
2. No player shall use his helmet (including the face mask) to butt or ram an opponent or attempt to punish him.
3. No player shall strike a runner with the crown or top of the helmet in an attempt to punish him.

2004 Rules
1. Spearing is the intentional use of the helmet (including the face mask) in an attempt to punish an opponent.
2. No player intentionally shall use his helmet (including the face mask) to butt or ram an opponent.
3. No player intentionally shall strike a runner with the crown or top of his helmet.


Okay, so it was already there regarding the spearing rule. And it should be there because that correctly defines spearing. But they actually added it in to rules #2 and #3 when it wasn't even there in 2004. So this was no accident. I guess you could say it was ... intentional.

So the question becomes can you unintentionally attempt to punish an opponent? While I'm sure it can be debated, I certainly don't think so. When I saw the rule changes for 2005 I was disappointed. This was not the recommendation from the NATA/AFCA Task Force on Spearing in Football. We simply wanted the rules to be interpreted by officials so they didn't have to worry about intent and they could penalize head-down contact. It can easily be argued that the rules now are more confounding.

It appears the NCAA Football Rules Committee does not want to penalize unintentional head-down contact. This appears to be the 'great divide' between the football practitioners and the medical professionals.

If you take a look at the penalty data you can see there was not a significant change in 2005. While the butting/ramming penalty tripled in frequency it still only reached 21 in 2005. Those numbers aren't going to cut it as a deterrent to players. So it certainly did not appear to make a difference in year number one of the rule change.

Well that was only one year. But I am not particularly optimistic that these penalties will be any better enforced in 2006. Realistically, the penalties have NEVER been adaquately called. And let's be honest an enforcement level of once in every 58 games isn't going to deter anyone. And these rules should be a deterent.

I would like to see these penalties called on a level with the face mask penalties, about once in every 1.4 games. And that seems to be a pretty tall order. We'll have to wait and see what the 2006 season brings.

Update 8/9/07
The penalty data for 2006 is now available for Division 1, NCAA. And once again there was not a significant change in the helmet contact penalties called. In 2006 there were only 12 spearing penalties and 21 butting/ramming penalties called. More detailed penalty enforcement data is available here.