The MIAA football season may seem a long way off, but there are growing concerns among both coaches and officials that the switch from NCAA to Federation rules this coming season will have a negative impact on the game here.
Not only do those parties believe the switch could lead to major player safety issues, but there is a probability of massive turnover in the number of officials who work MIAA games. How the game is coached, practiced, played, and officiated could undergo a major facelift, and those we have interviewed do not feel this change was necessary, nor properly vetted in the best interests of the sport.
"It all comes down to this: player safety and the game," Xaverian coach Al Fornaro said. "And there's a possibility that that could become compromised."
As President of the Association of New England Officials, Brian Doherty, said, "The fact of the matter is, there was no research done for this. The coaches were never asked their opinion. The officials were never asked their opinion. (The MIAA) just did this. They really haven't given us a good reason for it."
The previous time the MIAA did explore a switch to Federation rules was in 2001-2002, and the vehement opposition from the coaches and officials caused the proposal to be voted down. When the Tournament Management Committee passed this in August, there was no such consultation with those parties.
"This was an irresponsible decision done on their part," Doherty said.
"All I can say is that all the people who have a stake in the game at the high school level really want to see it looked at from every angle, and not done without a lot of thought," said Bill Graham, the President of the Massachusetts State Football Officials Association. "I think any change that needs to come needs to be done in a deliberate manner. It's not right for the student-athletes to have it made rashly. Everyone needs to come together and be more thoughtful and deliberate than we have been."
But according to those coaches and officials we spoke to on the matter, there is a unanimous sentiment against the change, leaving many wondering why this was even considered in the first place.
Said Gary Corvelo, a high school and college official who worked the Football Championship Subdivision national title game this past season, "I think that's everybody in the state's sentiment. I think anybody that is involved in the game of football, that is the main question: Why? What is driving this change? Just to change (for change's sake)?"
"I just don't understand why if everybody is against it, why we're doing it," said Justin Kogler, who recently took over the position to coach at West Bridgewater after leading Old Rochester to a Division 6 state title appearance in 2018. "Everyone that's doing this, we all want consistency, and we all want to stay the same. I just don't understand why we've got to make a change if everyone's against it."
Right now, there are 238 differences between NCAA rules and Federation ones. According to those we interviewed, the NCAA ones are ahead of the curve from both a player safety and common sense standpoint.
"Federation is reactive (compared to) the NCAA, which is proactive with their rules," Doherty said.
"If you look at the trend over the last 10 years, and the rules changes that have been provided to us, the NCAA sets the standard on all the rules that are better established," Corvelo said. "If you look at the trends in Federation, they follow what the NCAA does."
There are numerous examples where the Federation rules are more unsafe and years behind where the NCAA ones are. For instance, targeting is an automatic ejection in the NCAA, but not in Federation.
"They've tried to get that out of the game by disqualifying a player for doing it, which has absolutely worked," Doherty said. "The numbers are down more and more every year. Now, you go to Federation, where it's not an automatic disqualification, so a player can target, and it's just a 15-yard penalty, and it's not even an automatic first down."
Chop blocks are less strictly enforced in Federation. There are no avenues for a quarterback to legally ground the ball in Federation, which leads to signal-callers holding onto the ball longer, and increasing risk of injury. Wedges on kickoff returns are still legal in Federation.
The only automatic first downs are following roughing the passer, kicker, snapper or holder infractions. No other personal fouls result in an automatic first down, which act as a huge deterrent. There are also no resetting of the chains for pass interference.
"So, third and 20, these coaches are going to teach, 'If you're beat, pull 'em down,' " Doherty said.
There are more differences that are curious in other ways. For example, on an offensive holding play behind the line of scrimmage, the ball is marked off from the spot of the foul, not the previous spot. So if a player is called for holding five yards in the backfield, it ends up as a 15-yard penalty, not a 10-yard one.
Another is that a defensive holding is marked 10 yards forward from the result of the play. In other words, if a quarterback is sacked and loses 12 yards on a play where there is defensive holding, the result is a loss of two yards.
It's one of many in a long list of shifts that everyone in the state would have to account for.
"(The move to Federation) changes, top to bottom, every aspect of the game of football," Corvelo said.
If Massachusetts wants to modify any of these rules via the Federation, it will be one of 50 "states" (the District of Columbia is also a part of the Federation) that votes in a bloc to get it passed. Therefore, Massachusetts loses the autonomy to adjust on its own. Texas, which had replay during its playoffs this past season, is the only other state that goes by NCAA.
"Right now, (Massachusetts has) carte blanche (to make changes)," Corvelo said. "They can take and modify any NCAA rule, because they're not NCAA-sanctioned. We're not a college institution. We're the state of Massachusetts."
That's why you can see smaller leagues across the state play 10-minute quarters. With the smaller rosters, over the course of both a game and season, those programs can help avoid more fatigued players in the fourth quarters of games. In a state where there are already rampant forfeits due to low participation numbers, it doesn't make sense to force those smaller programs to play 12-minute quarters and see an increased risk of injury.
There is also a major sticking point when it comes to learning the two sets of rules.
"The Federation does not produce any video for training purposes," Doherty said. "(With the switch to Federation), we lose countless video from the CFO, which is college football officiating. They produce weekly training films. They give out weekly quizzes on the rules, and every Massachusetts member has a discounted membership to the CFO. It's about 35 bucks. It's nothing for a year for a guy to go on and access them. They don't even need to do them individually, because we show them at our meetings every week. Every week, we show these videos from the CFO, and that's all gone."
So not only are the officials being asked to learn 238 new rules, but they are being asked to do so without the more advanced set of resources that the NCAA provides.
"The quantity of it and the quality of (the CFO material) is really top-notch," Graham said. "It's a great training tool for new officials that we bring in, and for experienced officials to keep up with the changes, and keep up with philosophies. We haven't seen enough of that from the Federation."
Further complicating the matter is the number of officials who work an MIAA game on a Friday night, and a college one on Saturday. The possibility of having to keep two sets of rules in their heads could cause a major drop-off in both the quality and quantity of officials for MIAA games.
"You can't bound two sets of rules," Corvelo said. "I've heard people say that they can. I've worked with guys on a regular basis from Maine to North Carolina, and once they go to college football, all the officials I talk to, they don't go back to Federation rules because they can't balance out the difference."
"Nobody wants to make a mistake. You make a mistake in a high school game, you don't lose your job," Fornaro said. "At the collegiate level, you make those mistakes, this is my best guess, you're taken off the best squad because the colleges are paying you more. They say, 'Hey, cut it out. This ain't Harry High School stuff.' If there's a guy doing a Pop Warner game, he makes a mistake, it's not the end of the world. College, I'd imagine all of these guys aspire to go to Division 1, whether it's the Ivies, or Bryant, or even Division 2 with Bentley. It's serious. It's hectic. Their supervisor is not going to like it."
Said Graham: "I think that's a fear. If anything, it might make some officials a little bit tentative on the field."
And "tentative" is not what you want when you are working a game. Again, that's where mistakes happen. In a sport as physical as football, mistakes can lead to injuries.
"We rely on the officials to run the game, and run the game in a safe manner," Fornaro said. "And if those guys aren't comfortable because they don't feel like they know the rules, then that's dangerous. That's just dangerous."
The officials certainly understand that, too, which could lead to a drastic overhaul in the landscape here.
"We did a survey across the state where 557 officials were surveyed," Doherty said. "Of those, 120 were college officials, and of the 120 college officials, 50 percent said they were either not returning or not likely to return to high school football. Of the total amount of officials, 25 percent of them said that they were either not returning or not likely to return to officiating."
Doherty added, "You're going to get older guys with two or three years left saying, 'Screw it, I'm not going to learn another 238 new rules. I'll just retire now.' "
This exodus of experienced officials would be a huge blow to the state and a disservice to its players at the high school level.
"We have some of the best officials in the country from Massachusetts," Doherty said. "And, I'm telling you the reason is our huge connection with the college board, and the mentorship of the college officials, and the fact that young officials aspire to get to that next level because of these guys, because of the relationships with them."
He added, "We have such a leg up on other states by having the rules be the same for coaches, for players, and for officials."
Kogler knows the benefit of having that connection.
"(Corvelo) did our Thanksgiving Day game last year," Kogler said. "That was, by far, the cleanest game I've ever been a part of. Just as far as how quickly the chains were set, how quickly he got the ball ready, the communication for penalties, everything was just spot-on. It was great."
But Corvelo, and many others like him, won't be back if Federation is the law of the land in 2019. The prospect of losing officials like him would make a serious dent in the quality of high school football here.
"Guys aren't going to be willing to do that anymore because they're not going to want to make a big mistake on Saturday," Doherty said. "They don't want to say, 'Ah, shit, that was Federation rules,' (when they make a mistake in a college game). I think I heard one guy say to me, 'I don't want to make a big mistake in a small game, or a small mistake in a big game' in high school vs. college. And it's true. I don't blame him."
Neither do the coaches.
"Right now, I think that the time frame is too short to expect the officials to grasp the over 200 differences," Fornaro said. "People can say, 'Oh, it's only these (rules) . . .' No, it's every last one, because as soon as you say, 'It's only these,' then there is too much left up to interpretation. Two-plus-two is four. It's not 3.9. It's not 4.2. We're asking guys who have spent their whole careers trying to hone their craft as officials, and in this state, NCAA rules, which also allow them to do college games, (to learn a whole new set of rules) in six months."
It will actually be less than that. If you factor in that most officials are working other sports through the spring, and that the Federation books will not be made available until May with no definitive date in sight, you're looking at closer to three. The MIAA has also stated that it cannot guarantee that there will be enough rule books for every official in the state. There will be no training course, just one consultant from the state of Connecticut to educate the over 1,000 officials and over 300 coaches for the 238 rule changes.
If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, you're not alone.
"There's still no plan in place to educate the coaches on these rules changes," Doherty said. "And we're just scratching the surface of where it comes to educating the officials, and the season's six months away. When it comes down to it, every official's going to be a rookie."
Graham is more hopeful.
"I have no doubt that if and when this change happens that we can do it," Graham said. "The men and women in Massachusetts, we can handle whatever mandate that's given. Our only desire is to have a voice at the table and, like I said, see it done in a thoughtful, deliberate manner."
The only way that is still possible is if there is enough of a pushback to force another vote. But right now, it's a done deal, and Federation rules, and all the complications that come with them, are coming to Massachusetts.
"The way it was done was not kosher in our minds," Fornaro said. "But if anything, best case out of a worst-case scenario, put it on the backburner. Say, 'Hey, we will implement this in 2021.' You're still going to lose those officials, but you're going to give those officials who stay on time to learn."
"Unfortunately, it looks like we're all going to have to get used to it," Kogler said. "I don't think the powers-that-be, I don't think that they're willing to change from their decision."