ROBBINSVILLE — The hard-hitting, rub-some-dirt-on-it culture of football is changing.
New Jersey high schools are leading the way with new rules governing full contact that would be the most restrictive at any level of football.
The executive committee of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association approved on first reading drastic changes to the rules governing full contact during the preseason and regular season. The NJSIAA, which governs much high school sports in the state, defines full contact as tackling to the ground.
The new rules do the following:
• Limits teams to 15 minutes of full contact per week during the regular season. That’s down from the 90 minutes currently allowed.
• Limits teams to six hours of full contact a week during the preseason. Scrimmages would count as one hour. There was no limit on full contact in the preseason last year.
• Leaves in place the existing ban on full contact in the spring and summer.
The amount of contact is less than mandates or recommendations by the NFL, NCAA, Ivy League, USA Football, Pop Warner or any other football jurisdiction, the NJSIAA said in a news release.
If the executive committee approves the measure on second reading at its April meeting, the rules would take effect this fall.
“We have that slogan to provide, protect and promote our student athletes,” NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White said. “I just see these as a way to protect our student athletes. That’s paramount.”
The new regulations will cause football coaches to adjust, although many teams don’t tackle to the ground as much as they used to. Most teams don’t have the depth to risk getting players hurt in practice.
“We very rarely tackle to the ground,” Holy Spirit coach A.J. Russo said. “Most of the time we’re just in helmets and shoulder pads.”
But many teams did have full contact for more than 15 minutes per week.
Pleasantville coach Chris Sacco said he was concerned the 15-minute limit would not give nonstarters enough repetitions during practice.
“We’re just going to have to get creative and limit the amount of full contact to the ground,” he said. “There’s a lot of drills out there now that include proper head placement and proper shoulder placement. We’re just going to have to get creative and make it work.”
As with nearly all NJSIAA rules and regulations, teams are expected to voluntarily follow the new regulations. The NJSIAA on Wednesday did not specify a penalty for a team that broke the new rules but said one could be developed in the future.
“I get the safety concerns of our game,” Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said, “but I question how you can monitor 15 minutes a week. I guess we’ll have to get creative with how we set up practices and find ways to teach tackling fundamentals that keep our kids on their feet.”
The NJSIAA developed the new rules in conjunction with the Practice like Pros organization, which was founded in 2013 and is dedicated to reducing needless injuries in high school football. Super Bowl winning coaches Mike Ditka and Dick Vermeil have endorsed Practice like Pros. The organization says 58 percent of high school football injuries nationally occur during practice, compared with just 4 percent in the NFL.
The executive committee’s decision is another sign of the changing times for football. Just 10 years ago, many high school coaches would have been aghast at a 15-minute tackling limit per week.
“The key is you can still teach the skills of tackling,” White said. “A lot of that is ‘thud,’ making sure you have proper angle, proper technique, wrap them up, but don’t take them down to the ground because when you have someone landing on top of you and ground is hard it creates some problems.”