New helmet rule sees penalty flags at drop of a hat

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

Published:

 

A new rule with the intention of making high school football safer for the athlete might have some unintended consequences.

Players who lose their helmets during a play must sit out of the next play, unless the helmet was dislodged due to a penalty by the opposing team.

The motive behind the rule is to promote the proper fitting of helmets.

"If the helmet is fitted properly, it should not come off that easily," said John Williams, president of the Evergreen Football Officials Association.

Yes, there are those "perfect storm" collisions that will knock even a well-fit helmet out of place from time to time. However, Williams said, officials have been seeing a lot of loose helmets in recent years.

In fact, the National Federation of State High School Associations passed the rule because of mounting evidence that helmets are being dislodged more frequently.

The same rule is in play in the college game this season. That created a bit of controversy in Week 1 of the season when college coaches voiced concerns that defenders were using "high" tackles in an effort to knock off the helmet. Or, once a ball carrier found himself in a pile, there seemed to be more hands going toward the helmet of the ball carrier.

Is it possible the same actions found their way into high school games?

In last week's Skyview-Columbia River game, Columbia River quarterback Clayton Frank lost his helmet four times.

"We were wondering, with the emphasis on face masking, which is also grabbing the edge of the helmet, whether it was a facemask (penalty) or not," Columbia River coach John O'Rourke said. "That's what we asked the officials."

O'Rourke said he did not think Skyview coaches were instructing their players to do anything against the rules.

However, with so much emphasis in the national media regarding the new rule, it is not out of the realm of possibility that players, on their own, are trying to take advantage.

"It definitely happened," Frank said. "I've been playing football for 10 years. I'd lost my helmet one time. Then it happens four times in one game?"

Frank, a running quarterback, had 16 carries in Friday's game, with many finishing in piles. He said he was held down while another defender would slip a hand or get an arm to the chin strap and give a quick push on the helmet.

Skyview defensive coordinator Julian Williams said he and the coaching staff have never instructed their players to go after an opponent's helmet.

The four Skyview players contacted for this story denied any wrongdoing, suggesting instead that Frank's helmet was loose and the dislodging was just from typical game play. They also said helmets come off easier as a player perspires.

The Storm also lost a player at a key moment due to the rule. Skyview coach Steve Kizer said running back Jabari Marshall had his helmet ripped off intentionally on a third-down play in the first quarter of a scoreless game. Kizer called for the same play on fourth down, using a hurry-up offense, but the official sent Marshall to the sideline. The Storm failed to convert.

With both teams accusing the other of aggressive behavior concerning the helmets, it is quite possible both teams are right. It is also possible that the helmets are too loose, as well.

Other coaches suggested that officials should be aware of the possibility that the helmets are not coming off on their own.

However, it is difficult to see what all goes on in a football pile. Defenders often push a ball carrier's helmet in an effort to stop forward momentum. It can be difficult for a game official to determine if it is a regular push in the course of a gang tackle or a little extra to dislodge the helmet.

"You have to see the entire play before you call it," official John Williams said. "You cannot assume."

Some high tackles, even around the helmet area, are not necessarily penalties, he added.

The rule applies to both sides of the ball. Union coach Cale Piland said one of his defensive players lost his helmet when an opposing ball carrier led with his head. No penalty was called.

Without a flag, there is no gray area.

"If no foul is called, then the player must be removed," according to the NFSHSA 2012 Football Points of Emphasis. "It is imperative that the athletes take an active role in the proper fitting, wear and use of the helmet and realize the 'comfort' shortcuts are not permitted."

Julian Williams said he likes the new rule.

"Some kids try to keep it loose for comfort," he said. "They don't understand the safety issues."

Coaches and longtime observers have seen a rise in players losing helmets in recent years.

"It used to be so unusual," O'Rourke said.

Coaches have different theories, as well. One said there are only three sizes of helmets now, and the proper fitting comes from air pockets and using different padding inside the helmet.

"Back when we played, it fit your head better," Kizer said.

Two others said the snaps for the chin straps seem weaker than the snaps on helmets designed years ago.Whatever the reason, the NFSHSA is putting the onus on the player and coach to ensure proper fitting.

While the coaches are held responsible for that rule, they said they hope officials will keep an eye out for potential infractions that lead to dislodged helmets.

Was Frank's helmet too loose? What about Marshall's? Perhaps. But they also might have had unwanted help from opponents.

Williams of the EFOA said the players' well-being is a top priority for the officials. He said his association welcomes video, sent through the school's athletic director, to use for training.

"We try to collect game (video) any time we can," Williams said. "Film doesn't lie."

He said his officials will be looking for any extra aggression in the piles.

"It's a joint responsibility of the school, the coaches, and the officials to make sure of the safety of the kids, because it is a violent game," Williams said.