September 19, 2012

Hey, Ref: High schools further promote head safety

The summer was abuzz with controversy surrounding the NCAA’s proposed rules changes, alterations that could, if approved, have a dramatic effect on everything from the start of the game (faceoffs) to the tempo of the game (stalling) and much more.

With all of the conjecture and hyperbole spinning around the lacrosse websites and forums, what most people missed was the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) quietly announcing its rules changes.

The announcement was quiet because the high school game isn’t going to change much at all this year.

The NFHS has added some language to Rule 5-4 CHECKS INVOLVING THE HEAD/NECK:

“With the recent concentration on reducing head injuries in high school sports, the committee added new language to Rule 5-4, which states that ‘a player shall not initiate an excessive, violent or uncontrolled slash to the head/neck.’ In addition, the rule now prohibits an offensive player in possession of the ball from blocking an opponent with the head or initiating contact with the head.”

It’s new language and emphasis, sure, but it doesn’t really change anything, as those practices have been illegal as far as I can remember.

Kent Summers, NFHS director of performing arts and sports, said if the contact to the head/neck is considered deliberate or reckless, the penalty shall be a minimum two- or three-minute non-releasable foul.

“In light of the potentially devastating, long-term effects of head injuries, it remains a priority to eliminate or minimize the frequency and impact of violent checks and collisions,” Summers said.

The rules already allowed officials to penalize players for one, two or three minutes based on the severity of any personal foul. The NFHS clearly wants officials to penalize hits to the head with greater severity.

Players and coaches need to take notice. A two- or three-minute “locked in” penalty can be a game changer. Just because the player “didn’t mean to hit (the opponent) in the head,” doesn’t clear him of charges.

Intention has nothing to do with it; refs can’t judge a player’s intention when they see a shot to the head, but they are sure that the rules were violated.

Many players and coaches get upset when a player is “locked in” for an illegal body check involving the head. It’s always “Hey, ref, he’s a foot shorter than my guy,” or “Hey, ref, he was bent over,” seemingly followed by “What’s he supposed to do?”

Sorry, coach, it doesn’t matter how short your opponent is, you still can’t hit him in the head. The rule applies even if your opponent is bent over attempting to scoop up a ground ball; you still can’t make contact with his head, so stop the complaining and stop the excuses.

Make adjustments. The rule is staying the same, but the change is making it more likely that the foul will not just be locked in, but will be longer than a minute.

Remember, too, that even if initial contact is legal, “Any follow-through that contacts the head or neck shall also be considered a violation of this rule.”

One other NFHS rules change comes in Rules 4-3-6 PLAY RULINGS and 5-10-1d UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT. “An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty will be assessed if a player deliberately uses his hands or fingers to play the ball, or if a player grabs an opponent’s crosse with the open hand or fingers.”

This is new in the NFHS. It has been a NCAA rule for a couple of years, intended to prevent faceoff guys from grabbing the ball and their opponent’s stick. (Inadvertent touching of the ball should not be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.)

As for the changes to college lacrosse, stay tuned; the NCAA rules proposals will be voted on early in the fall, but will be talked about all winter, into the spring season and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Paul Quill is a youth and high school referee in Eastern Massachusetts.