For area high school football coaches, it’s not so much about what decision was made. It’s more about how it was made.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association voted last August to adopt the rules guiding the National Federation of State High School Associations starting in the fall of 2019.
It means the Commonwealth will forgo the NCAA rules it has followed for decades and play under the same rules as every state other than Texas. The vote (passed 10-1-1) will impact specific sports such as football, baseball and volleyball.
Football, however, will feel the changes more than other sports as there are some 238 differences between NCAA and Federation rules. In baseball, one of the limited modifications is the fact teams have to implement a pitch count, which some programs do on their own for the sake of the athlete.
With football set to feel the changes more dramatically, high school coaches, referees and coaching committees were hopeful they would be able to get the MIAA to reconsider or at least give them more time to deal with the changes.
That is not the case. It will be implemented this fall.
Gridiron coaches around the state, and specifically those from this area, are not happy with the decision. Many say their biggest issue is with the MIAA board of directors, who voted to support the change put forward by the Tournament Management Committee, and how the board went about the decision. The board is composed of principals, athletic directors and a representation of both superintendents and school committee members.
“This change was approved in a (August 2018) meeting by the Tournament Management Committee without input from football coaches, officials and Massachusetts high school coaching committees,” said Gary Doherty, Bishop Feehan’s athletic director and football coach.
“When it comes to something so important as changing the rules, you should have a responsibility to find out feedback from football officials and the coaches association,” Doherty said. “If you don’t, you’re telling all bodies that you don’t value their opinion.”
Foxboro High coach Jack Martinelli, who has spent 40-plus years coaching in the Commonwealth, agreed. He said his biggest issue was more about the process and less about the result. Martinelli also said he thought if the MIAA brought the proposed changes to the coaches before the August meeting, it would not have passed.
“I’m not sure there’s many people happy with the change,” Martinelli said. “Things change, formations change and people have opinions, but you deal with it. But without much heads up, and for what reason was the change necessary? Without knowing those answers, those were probably more concerning than making the change.”
MIAA Associate Executive Director Richard Pearson, who was an assistant principal at Foxboro High from 2000 to 2004, said while he recognized the speed with which everything took place and respected the opinions of officials and coaches alike, the MIAA needed a comprehensive plan as fast as possible.
In terms of the timeline, Pearson said the original idea to implement changes was brought up in April or May 2018 by the TMC before the board of directors supported the change in August. The committee sits above all sports and monitors consistency.
Pearson said he could not say the coaches were sent a questionnaire or survey when the process started, but with the way the MIAA governance works, the directors had decision-making authority and they exercised it. The decisions made by the committees are not made in a vacuum to disregard people’s opinions, he said.
Many being impacted by the decision voiced their frustrations with the suddenness. To that, Pearson said there was no out-of-the-box reason. It was simply done because the TMC and directors were looking for consistency across all sports. To that point, the lone sports not under Federation rules were football, baseball and volleyball.
Some coaches, including Doherty and Don Johnson, longtime football coach at North Attleboro High, cited safety concerns as another reason to be skeptical.
“All the recent changes made by the NCAA rules I think have really taken a big step in increasing and enhancing the safety of the game,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure the Federation rules have been as progressive in that manner.”
Doherty agreed. He cited specific rule differences like a live-ball fumble and changes to the targeting penalty.
“I feel like safety is being impacted and I don’t want to see someone get hurt because they think we’re playing by different rules,” Doherty said. “It’s putting officials, coaches and kids in a bad spot, in my opinion.”
Some coaches noted even the increase in game time (four 12-minute quarters rather than four 11-minute periods) compromises safety. Teams with smaller roster sizes were hoping to maintain the 10 or 11-minute quarters they had played with, however, the Federation has issues with individual states making modifications to playing rules.
In this case, Pearson said, Massachusetts could implement its own modifications in terms of period length, but it would then jeopardize its case to remain a voting member on the Federation’s national rules committee. Essentially, it would lose its voice on the bigger stage when it comes to changes at annual meetings.
There are others who say the Federation rules will enhance safety. Federation rules eliminate blocking below the waist, and while it is not a positive for the smaller player trying to get leverage on a bigger player, it could be one positive in terms of safety.
Pearson said the fact Federation rules have been adopted by 50 of 51 states (including Washington D.C) shows they have the pursuit of safety “at their core.”
Many area teams have played under Federation rules before. Anytime teams travel to play out-of-state teams from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island or elsewhere (besides Texas) they were playing under Federation rules. Mansfield and Foxboro, specifically, have fallen under that category.
The MIAA is holding training workshops — twice this spring, once this summer — for both coaches and officials to gain knowledge on the array of topics.
All parties involved recognize that the 2019 football season will probably be a hectic one. There will be screaming coaches questioning the spot of the ball after a foul, there will be referees scratching their heads on other calls.
One way or another, though, they’ll be in it together, under the Friday night lights.
“It’s still football,” Martinelli said. “The ball is still oblong and both teams will play by the same rules. But I’m sure every coach and official will have a rule book in their back pocket the first game of the season.”