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Publish date: Oct 20, 2010

A primer on NCAA rules for football safety 

NCAA football rules changes timeline

1976 – Rule changes for the 1976 football season eliminate the head and face as a primary and initial contact area for blocking and tackling.

2002 – The NCAA Football Rules Committee adds specific language to define when a student-athlete is defenseless and adds a point of emphasis for protection of these players.

2005 – The NCAA Football Rules Committee changes college football rules regarding spearing and head-down contact, removing any reference to “intent” from the rule. In addition to the rule change, the NCAA focuses on the education of student-athletes, coaches, officials and administrators regarding prevention of head and neck injuries. The NCAA partners with several membership groups (coaches, athletic trainers, etc.) to produce educational materials to teach proper tackling technique and prevention of head contact.

2008 – The NCAA makes the horse-collar tackle illegal, revamps illegal contact of an opponent and simplifies the chop-block rule. More emphasis is placed on eliminating hits on defenseless players and blows to the head. No player is permitted to initiate contact and target an opponent with the crown of his helmet, and no player is permitted to initiate contact and target a defenseless opponent above the shoulders.

2009 – A rule is added to require conference review of fouls related to targeting/initiating contact to players. If a foul is not called, conferences are allowed to review plays and impose sanctions. As a result, several conferences enforce suspensions on egregious fouls using supplementary discipline.

2010 – Wedge blocking is eliminated and specific concussion and injury management rules are implemented. Injured student-athletes must be cleared by appropriate medical personnel (as determined by the institution) before returning to competition. The committee also clarifies that contact above the shoulders with any body part is a violation (e.g., forearm, shoulder, etc.). The committee took advantage of the two-year playing rules process that allowed for safety alterations in the non-change year.

For years, the NCAA has been at the forefront of student-athlete safety and implemented initiatives to make competition as safe as possible. Rules changes have expanded beyond the traditional notion of helmet-to-helmet contact and added a focus on all hits targeting and contacting defenseless players above the shoulders. 

“The health and safety of student-athletes is the reason the NCAA was created,“ said NCAA President Mark Emmert.  “We have to remain vigilant to that mission, and these types of injuries require our careful attention.”  

Rogers Redding, football rules secretary-rules editor, noted that the NCAA Football Rules Committee continually reviews player safety and has implemented rules to remove the word intent from head-down contact, penalize the horse-collar tackle, eliminate wedge-blocking and strengthen penalties regarding the tackling of defenseless players.

“Student-athlete safety is of the utmost importance, and the Association will continue to protect its student-athletes,” Redding said.

Football student-athletes who target the head and neck area of defenseless players will continue to be penalized for initial contact with a forearm, elbow, shoulder or helmet. A 15-yard penalty is enforced on these violations. In egregious situations, officials may eject the offending player. Last season, five Division I football student-athletes were ejected from games for these violations.

Following the rules change in 2009 requiring conferences to further examine these fouls after games, 73 plays were reviewed, resulting in four suspensions from games. In addition, some conferences sent letters of reprimand to coaches and student-athletes following post-game reviews.

“We believe the committee’s decision has helped to reduce the unnecessary roughness penalties involving hits to the head,” said David Parry, national coordinator of football officials. “We have seen a decline in them.”

Rules changes for the 2010 season mandate that injured student-athletes, including those who exhibit signs of a concussion, must be cleared by appropriate medical personnel as determined by the institution before returning to competition. An injured player must also miss a play before he is allowed to take part in the game again. Previously, a player could return to action before the next play if a timeout was called.

Receiving teams are no longer allowed to have wedge-blocking formations of three or more players on kickoffs. (NCAA research showed that one of every five injuries that occur on kickoffs resulted in a concussion.) Two-player wedges remain legal, but the formation of three or more players in a wedge is now a foul that results in a 15-yard penalty. It also will be considered a live-ball foul, regardless of whether there is contact between opponents.

The NCAA’s health and safety needs are addressed through the collaborative efforts of national office staff, governance committees, sports rules committees, sports issues committees and external associations. The NCAA Football Rules Committee works closely with the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports and other medical experts.