Today’s Tidbit… 1876 IFA Rule 17: Boundary Lines
This is #17 in a series covering football’s original 61 rules adopted by the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876. We review one rule each Friday.
Rule 17 is likely my favorite IFA rule of 1876. Its ten words are tight as long as you understand the meaning of the terms, which cannot be assumed. I recall having no idea what Rule 17 meant the first time I read it, but I learned, and faithful readers of this space will recall that the coverage of earlier rules defined “in goal” and “in touch,” so Rule 17 should be readily understandable.
Rule 17: The goal-line is in goal and the touch-line in touch.
The rule uses archaic language, but the meaning beneath the words is unchanged. Let’s review. “In goal” refers to the indefinite area behind the goal line that became known as the end zone when we added the end line to the field in 1912. (See Football Before End Zones for an explanation of how and why that came about.) So, the portion of the rule that says “The goal-line is in goal” means that the goal line is part of the “in goal” area, and a touchdown could be earned by touching the ball down not only in the “in goal” area but on the goal line itself.
An 1885 rule change eliminated the requirement to touch the ball down in goal. Doing so eliminated dangerous mail-ins. (See here for coverage of maul-ins, or wait two weeks for our coverage of Rule 19.) Instead, the ball simply had to reach the opponent’s “in goal” area in an offensive player’s possession.
The second half of Rule 17 says, “and the touch-line in touch.” We now call touch lines sidelines, and the area outside the touch lines, known then as “in touch,” is now called out of bounds. So, stepping on the touch line or sideline was the same as stepping out of bounds. Similarly, balls landing on the touch line were also out of bounds. All of this is perfectly understandable to football fans in 2023. Other than the words, nothing has changed since 1876.
In a few months, we will cover Rules 31 and 33, which tell us what happens when the ball or a ball carrier goes into touch. Several rules covered the procedures for bringing the ball back into play at the time that no longer applies. In the meantime, know that the football remained live when it went into touch. It did not become dead as it does today, leading to exciting battles for possession when the ball was fumbled out of bounds.
That is from a different era and will be saved for another day.
For previous stories in the series, click Intro | Rules #1 Drop Kick | #2 Place Kick | #3 Punt | #4 Goal Posts | #5 Goal | #6 Goal ≠ Punt | #7: Scoring | #8: Dead Ball | #9: Touchdown | #10: Tackle | #11: Scrimmage | #12: Ball Handling | #13 Dead Ball | #14: Scrimmage Ball Handling | #15 Run In | #16: Goal Line
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