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"There's No Tickling in Football!": Defensive Strategies Discovered While Watching a Three-Year-Old

Do the rules of college football permit tickling while tackling?

This question occurred to me this morning, while I was watching my three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. She and I were playing a game in which she would run to the door and open it, I would respond with comic exaggerated consternation and close the door, she would laugh, and we would repeat the cycle. (This is how much of life with a small child is spent.) Eventually, I changed the rules of the game and began blocking Elizabeth’s path to the door, and she, giggling all the while, attempted to detour around and (ultimately) under me, at which point I grabbed her and tickled her until she collapsed on the floor as a bundle of laughter.

My thought was, in a football game, if your opportunity to make a textbook form tackle has passed you by, but you still have your hands on the ballcarrier as he runs past you, could you tickle him in the hope of tripping him up or making him drop the ball? (No, I am not seriously suggesting this as a defensive strategy; these are the sorts of thoughts that occur to football fans with youngsters in their households.)

The NCAA college football rule book explains, somewhat unhelpfully, in Rule 2-26: "Tackling is grasping or encircling an opponent with a hand(s) or arm(s)." If a defender has his hands on the ballcarrier’s rib cage and he makes tickling motions with his fingers, that would seem to qualify as "grasping" the opponent with his "hand(s)." So far, so good.

Rule 9-1-2, which governs personal fouls and covers such matters as "horse collar" tackles, does not appear to contain any provision qualifying Rule 2-26 in a manner that prohibits tickling. Rule 9-2-1, which governs unsportsmanlike conduct, and Rule 9-2-2, which governs unfair tactics, likewise seem inapplicable; the former contains a general prohibition against committing "a personal foul before the game, during the game or between the periods," but the same section goes on to clarify that "[a]ny act prohibited hereunder or any other act of unnecessary roughness is a personal foul." Clearly, tickling is neither.

The use of the hands and arms by the defense is governed by Rule 9-3-4, which reads (with penalty yardage and citations removed):

a. Defensive players may use hands and arms to push, pull, ward off or lift offensive players when attempting to reach the runner.

b. Defensive players may not use hands and arms to tackle, hold or otherwise illegally obstruct an opponent other than a ball carrier.

c. Defensive players may use hands and arms to push, pull, ward off or lift offensive players obviously attempting to block them. Defensive players may ward off or legally block an eligible pass receiver until that player occupies the same yard line as the defender or until the opponent could not possibly block him. Continuous contact is illegal.

d. When no attempt is being made to get at the ball or the runner, defensive players must comply with Rules 9-3-3-a, b, c and d.

e. When a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone during a forward pass play and a contact foul that is not pass interference is committed beyond the neutral zone, the enforcement spot is the previous spot. This includes Rule 9-3-4-c.

f. A defensive player legally may use his hands or arms to ward off or block an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball (Rule 9-1-2-d, Exceptions 3 and 4 and Rule 9-3-3-c, Exceptions 3 and 5):
  1. During a backward pass, fumble or kick that he is eligible to touch.
  2. During any forward pass that crossed the neutral zone and has been touched by any player or official.
g. A defensive player may not continuously contact an opponent’s helmet (including the face mask) with hand(s) or arm(s) (Exception: Against the ball carrier).

None of those restrictions is applicable to a defender attempting to tackle the ballcarrier who has his hands on the runner’s ribs. Accordingly, I am left to conclude that, if traditional forms of tackling have failed, the defender lawfully may tickle the tailback in an effort to dislodge the ball or bring down the ballcarrier.

No, it isn’t the optimal solution, and a technique that proved so effective in bringing down a three-year-old girl may not be so practical against a 200-pound tailback, but, given the state of our run defense the last several seasons, it can’t hurt to try it in a pinch.

Go ‘Dawgs!