New Jersey high school sports officials say they want football to remain a hard-hitting sport -- but only on game days.

In what the organization described as landmark legislation, the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association on Wednesday imposed strict regulations on player-on-player contact during football practice sessions.

Under the new rules:

  • In-season full contact will be reduced from 90 minutes a week to 15 minutes per week.
  • Preseason full contact will be reduced from unlimited to six hours total, including scrimmages.
  • No change was made to the existing ban on full contact during spring and summer workouts.

“We have that logo or slogan, ‘To provide, protect and promote our student athletes,’” NJSIAA executive director Larry White said. “This is just a way to protect our student athletes. That’s paramount.”

The rule change will take effect in the summer for 2019, provided it passes a second reading by the NJSIAA’s executive committee in April. That committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to implement the new regulations.

In a statement, the NJSAA said, “player-on-player contact for New Jersey high schools has been reduced to the lowest level in the history of football.”

Reaction was swift from South Jersey coaches. Vineland’s Dan Russo said his team has limited contact in practice for the last four years.

“The kids are too valuable,” Russo said. “I’m all for anything that improves safety.”

Cinnaminson players celebrate 2018 Thanksgiving Day win over Delran to capture WJFL Liberty Division title.
CHARLES FOX /Staff Photographer
Cinnaminson players celebrate 2018 Thanksgiving Day win over Delran to capture WJFL Liberty Division title.

Cinnaminson’s Mario Patrizi praised the changes.

“I like the recommendations the NJSIAA is making,” Patrizi said. “Football is a long season. Keeping the kids healthy and fresh is a definitely a priority.”

Under NJSIAA rules, full-contact hitting is defined as situations in which a player takes another player to the ground. There are no limitations on “thud” contact, when players collide but don’t go the ground -- sessions that often involve the use of large tackling pads and other instructional equipment.

“Remember it’s 15 minutes of contact,” White said. “The key is you can still teach the skills of tackling. A lot of that is just ‘thud’ -- making sure you have proper angles, proper technique, wrap him up.

“But don’t take him down to the ground, because when you’ve got somebody landing on top of you and the ground is pretty hard, that creates the problem.”

Collingswood coach Mike McKeown was among the South Jersey coaches who expressed some reservations about the new rules.

“I’m all for anything that improves safety,” McKeown said. “But I’m not sure how you are going to teach kids in 15 minutes a week what they need to be able to do for three hours during a game on Friday night.

“It’s one thing to hit a sled. But it’s a lot different when you have a live player coming at you with bad intentions.”

Woodrow Wilson coach Preston Brown said his team does some live hitting early in a typical game week.

“Wow,” Brown said of the new rule. “Guess we’re going to have to make sure we get some extra time in the weight room.”

Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said that most coaches teach tackling without full-contact sessions. But he said there are times during the season when he wants to increase the intensity level at practice.

“I agree like most coaches that most of teaching can take place without tackling to the ground,” Hinson said. “However, it does still have its place in practice. I’d still like to have the ability to tackle whenever we feel we need to ramp things up and get after it without fear of punishment.”

White conceded that coaches would be on an “honor system” to comply with the new limitations. He said the NJSIAA likely will ask the coaches to maintain a log book to chart their practice sessions.

As far as discipline for going over the limitations, White said the organization was “going to look into that.”

The drastic changes were made in conjunction with the New Jersey Football Coaches Association and on the advice of Practice Like Pros, a national organization dedicated to improving football safety.

Terry O’Neill, the founder of the organization, attended the NJSAA meeting on Wednesday and noted that most professional and college programs strictly limit full contact after the start of the season.

“This is a valentine for the 23,000 boys who play New Jersey high school football,” O’Neill said. “The one certain way to mitigate football injury is to limit contact in practice.

“New Jersey has pioneered a model that is sure to be emulated across the country.”