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Today's Tidbit... Unintended Consequences of the Fair Catch Signal
As football transitioned from rugby, it brought along rugby's rules and traditions, including rugby's fair catch, in which players signaled the fair catch by "heeling in" as they made the catch. Heeling in occurred when players struck the ground with the heel of their foot, creating a divot to mark the spot. Since heeling in occurred simultaneously with or just after the catch, the kicking team players covering the punt could not tackle the returner until they saw whether or not he heeled in. However, the gunners sometimes hit the returner before allowing him to heel in, so the rule-makers of 1893 tried to protect the returner by having him signal his intention to fair catch by raising his hand above his head.
The rule change was a logical attempt to protect the player calling for the fair catch, but it had an unintended consequence. Although the new rule helped protect players calling for the fair catch, it endangered those who did not. Alex Moffatt, one of the great early football players (at Princeton from 1882 to 1884) and a top referee after his playing days, reflected on the rule change after its first season of use, saying:
The rule in regard to the holding up of the hand by the cacher who is about to receive a kicked ball has certainly proven a failure, and a return to the old rule would be better than the play as it is at present. The idea of the new rule was that if the catcher signified his intention of making a fair catch it would assist the umpire in ruling upon the question of interference. In practice, however, it served to indicate to the opposing rushers the fact that he was going to catch the ball and not run with it, and in consequence if he did not make the signal he was immediately tackled and downed. Under the old rule this tackling was not done until the opponents saw whether he made his heel mark or started to run with the ball. This rule will, therefore, undoubtedly have to be changed, but in what respect will be a problem of great difficulty to be solved wisely.
'Moffatt On Football Rules,' Boston Evening Transcript, December 4, 1894.
Although Moffat made this observation in 1889, American football never resolved the unintended consequence of the fair catch rule. The rule stood unchanged until 1973 when the NCAA updated it to require the returner to wave his hand to signal the fair catch.
Canadian football took a different approach by eliminating the fair catch and restricting the punting team from approaching within five yards of the returner until the ball is caught, making punt returns frequent, relatively safe, and exciting. The rule makers considered the Canadian approach in the late 1900s, with substantial conversation following Ottawa and Hamilton staging an exhibition game in New York City in 1909.
However, American football never adopted the Canadian fair catch rule, so Yankee punt returners have risked life and limb ever since.
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