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Rules changes will affect fall sports

By Greg Johnson

As NCAA teams prepare to start in-season competition this fall, fans will see several rules changes in football, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, field hockey, and men’s water polo.

Each of those sport’s rules committees met last winter to recommend changes to improve the quality of play and enhance student-athlete safety. These recommendations were approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel and are now official rules changes effective for the 2012 season.

Here are some of the most prominent changes in NCAA fall sports competition.


  • Kickoff and Touchback Starting Lines Moved. Kickoffs will take place at the 35-yard line (instead of at the 30-yard line), and kicking team players must be no more than five yards from the 35 at the kick. This is intended to limit the running start kicking teams have during the play. The touchback distance on free kicks also has been moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line to encourage more touchbacks. NCAA data indicates injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.
  • Loss of Helmet During Play. If a player loses his helmet (other than as the result of a foul by the opponent, like a facemask), it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game and is not allowed to participate for the next play. Current injury timeout rules guard against using this rule to gain an advantage from stopping the clock. Additionally, if a player loses his helmet, he cannot continue to participate in the play (in order to protect him from injury). Data collected during the 2011 season indicated that helmets came off more than two times per game.
  • Blocking Below the Waist. The intent of the changes made last season were to allow blocking below the waist only when the opposing player is likely to be prepared for this contact, but the opposite impact was discovered in some cases. To clarify the intent, blocking below the waist is allowed only by offensive players in the tackle box at the snap who are not in motion. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions (such as straight ahead blocks).
  • Shield Blocking Scheme on Punting Plays. The Football Rules Committee reviewed several examples of shield blocking, which has become a popular scheme for punting teams. In several cases, a receiving team player attempts to jump over this type of scheme in the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are hit and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders. The committee was concerned about this type of action and proposed a rule similar to the leaping rule on place kicks that does not allow the receiving team to jump over blockers, unless the player jumps straight up or between two players.
  • Additional Protection to the Kick Returner. Through officiating interpretation, kick returners are provided protection of one yard (in front of the returner) to complete a catch before the kicking team is allowed to make contact. Also, receiving teams can call for a fair catch on onsides kicks that are driven directly into the ground but that don’t bounce a second time.

Women’s volleyball

Coaches will be allowed to make up to 15 substitutions per set this season. Previously, teams were allowed only 12 substitutions per set. The Women’s Volleyball Rules Committee recommended the change to increase playing opportunities.

Additionally, statistics can be transmitted to the bench area this season. The Volleyball Rules Committee noted that it is common to see electronic devices such as laptops and iPads in the bench area. However, audio or video transmissions to the bench area remain restricted.

Another rules change for 2012 is that referee platforms should be distributed evenly behind the net pole, with the ladder being evenly distributed behind the back of the platform. Some referee platforms currently are constructed so that players attempting to play a ball near the stand could make contact with an inflexible object (the ladder, for example).

The uniform rule also was clarified for 2013. The rule centers on either the libero or her teammates wearing a solid-colored jersey. The libero’s shirt or jersey must be in clear contrast to the other members of the team. A one-inch trim and piping along the seams of the jersey will be allowable, but it is imperative that the libero’s jersey be distinguishable for identification purposes.

Men’s and women’s soccer

This season, a card repository system in men’s and women’s soccer will provide an official record of players in all three divisions who are required to miss games because of disciplinary action. The new process is primarily intended to improve efficiencies in tracking soccer’s card system, which until now has been done only on an ad hoc basis or provided in year-end reports.

Official scorekeepers are required to send box scores (which include cards given during that game) to the NCAA statistics staff, which tracks cards as any other statistic. Game officials also are required to report ejections (red cards) issued during a given game to the NCAA Soccer Central Hub, which in turn prompts notification from the NCAA national office to the relevant conferences and the affected team’s athletics director about the suspension.

An ancillary benefit of the new system is its sportsmanship component. While cards are reported in box scores and in officials’ reports after games, suspensions for yellow-card accumulations or for red cards have been left for individual schools to administer. Most teams honor the rules as written, but the committee has learned of occasional instances in which players who are supposed to sit out games either do not or delay their suspensions for an easier opponent.

Accordingly, under the new system, if a player who is due to miss a game because of cards does not serve the suspension, that game will be forfeited and the player will be required to miss the next two games. Additionally, the head coach will be required to miss an equal number of games.

For years, soccer has relied on its card system to help regulate on-field behavior. Referees have the authority to issue yellow cards (also called “cautions”) to players for rough play, persistent infringement on the rules of play, taunting, incidental profanity and other violations. The accumulation of yellow cards over the course of a season can also result in game suspensions.

Officials also may issue red cards, or immediate ejections, to players who commit more egregious infractions (such as serious foul play, abusive language or an intentional handball). Those also carry game suspensions.

Because of the card system’s complexity – and because until now there hasn’t been a formal reporting requirement or collection agency – schools and conferences have been on their own for keeping track of cards and administering penalties.

In other rules changes for soccer, referees will have more discretion in the last five minutes of the game to manage the clock.

Specifically, the referee can determine whether to keep the clock moving if the team that is trailing commits a violation that warrants a card. Previously, the clock stopped while the official issued the card. However, the rules committee learned that the losing team sometimes uses this tactic to stop the clock in end-of-game situations. Conversely, if the team that is ahead purposely delays the restart after the card is given (as tactic to keep the clock moving), the referee can stop the clock.

The following rules will also be in effect this season:

  • Any throw-in that does not reach the field of play will result in possession being awarded to the opposing team. Previously if the ball didn’t advance to the field of play, the player was allowed to retake the throw.
  • Excessive celebration (such as rehearsed celebrations after a goal) has been added to the list of infractions that can merit a yellow card during play.
  • Players will be allowed to wear technological devices during games. (Teams have begun to use such devices to track players’ heart rates and measure other physical effects for training purposes and to help coaches gage substitution patterns and other aspects of the game.) The data gleaned from these devices, though, may not be used during the game or intervals, unless verified as medically necessary.
  • Coaches and staff may use electronic aids on the sidelines during games. However, the rules still continue to prohibit coaches from communicating with anyone via electronic messaging devices or phones during the game.

Field hockey

A new shootout protocol will be used in all regular-season games this season. After the traditional overtime period, a one-on-one shootout between an attacker and goalkeeper will take place. The shootout will be similar to an ice hockey shootout but conducted in an eight-second timeframe. Unlike ice hockey, multiple shots can be taken within the eight seconds in the field hockey shootout.

Another change is that every warning card will carry some type of suspension or penalty time when issued. A green card will carry a mandatory two-minute suspension for the player. Previously, a green card served only as a warning. A yellow card will still carry a minimum five-minute suspension for the player with no maximum penalty time. The Field Hockey Committee believes players will be less likely to commit a foul if they know they’ll have to leave the game.

Men’s water polo

The course will be limited to 25 meters and the shot clock will be shortened to 30 seconds this season. Previously, the men’s course was not to exceed 30 meters and the shot clock was 35 seconds. The changes are being implemented with the goal of producing more offense.