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New Rules in College Football Aimed at Reducing Injuries

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Now that college football is in full swing, I’m sure you have noticed the new rules in effect this season.  There are two changes in particular that I want to discuss as they are both designed to help reduce the number of injuries in the sport.  The first is the new touchback rule and the second are the new rules regarding helmets that come off during play.

Historically, a kickoff that went through the end zone or one that was downed in the end zone resulted in a touchback, allowing the receiving team to take over at the 20-yard line.  Many teams chose to return kicks into the end zone, taking the chance that they could improve on the 20-yard line start.  Since kickoffs are the plays that result in the highest-speed collisions and therefore some of the most serious injuries, the NCAA is trying to encourage more touchbacks by changing the rule to allow the receiving team to start at the 25-yard line.  I haven’t seen any official stats on the number of touchbacks this season compared to previous data, but from the sample of games that I have watched it seems that teams are still running kicks out of the end zone at about the same rate.

I like the intention of this new rule since my experience in covering high school games has shown that the kickoff return is a play to be nervous about from an injury standpoint, but I’m not sure if it actually does enough to prevent any injuries.  One additional change related to this rule is that the kicking team can only get a 5 yard running start instead of a 10 yard start which is designed to slow down the covering players a little.  I don’t believe that this will change anything, and it actually may encourage players to run more kicks out of the end zone since the coverage team takes a little longer to get there.  Some teams, such as my hometown University of Louisville Cardinals, are finding ways around this rule by having their kickoff coverage team build up speed by running parallel to the yard lines before heading up field.  If the NCAA is really serious about preventing injuries on kickoffs, then maybe it’s time to consider omitting the kickoff altogether, instead allowing teams to start on the 20 or 25 yard-line.  I watch Denver Broncos home games regularly, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a kickoff that didn’t sail out of the end zone in the mile-high air, and I don’t feel like the quality of the game is diminished at all.

The second safety-minded rule change this season addresses helmets that come off during play.  If a ball carrier’s helmet comes off during play, then the play is whistled dead immediately.  If any other player’s helmet comes off during play, then that player must stop any prolonged participation in the play or he may be flagged for a penalty.  This part of the rule relies on the judgment of the officials as to what constitutes prolonged participation.  Any player who loses his helmet during a play, as long as it was not the result of a penalty such as a facemask, must come out of the game for the next play.  This rule can have a significant impact on the game, especially if the player happens to be the QB.  Backups have to be more on alert as they could get called into action on very short notice.  Obviously, this rule is intended to protect players who lose their helmet by preventing them from continuing the play, as most players simply would ignore the risks and finish the play as if they still had a helmet.  It also makes teams and trainers pay more attention to the fit and security of helmets for all their players.

I applaud the NCAA for trying to protect their athletes, and I believe that these rules were well though out and well intentioned.  I worry that if the new rules affect the outcomes of games it could potentially cause backlash that would put pressure on the NCAA to relent.  If a player’s helmet comes off in the last minute of a half, and there was no other reason to stop the clock, then there is now a 10 second runoff.  The team can elect to use a timeout if they don’t want to lose the 10 seconds.  The worst-case scenario would be a team in scoring position, driving to win the game but with no timeouts, in which a running back loses his helmet on a play with less than 10 seconds left.  Instead of being able to kill the clock with a spike and kick a game-winning field goal, the 10-second runoff would end the game.  That is a very unlikely scenario, but one thing I’ve learned from watching football over the years is that anything is possible.

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