When the word “intentional” is mentioned, the first thing that springs to the mind of most football officials is intentional grounding. However, intent plays a role in many more acts than that. There are roughly 15 acts in which intent is a factor at least to some extent.
Intentional is an adjective which means done on purpose or deliberately. Some of the synonyms that may apply to football players include calculated, conscious, intended, planned, meant, purposeful and thought-out-in-advance.
Any rule that requires an official to determine “intent” is prone to inconsistent enforcement. Because officials are not mind readers, intent must be judged by default; examples are provided as appropriate.
A kick is an intentional act (NFHS 2-24-1; NCAA 2-16-1a). It’s important to distinguish between an illegal kick and illegally kicking the ball. They are not the same. An illegal kick is a kick made in a perfectly legal manner, but is not allowed because of when or where it is made. Illegally kicking the ball means kicking it in a manner not allowed by the rules — how the ball is kicked (2-16-1). An illegal kick is a foul, but whether or not illegally kicking the ball is a foul depends on intent.
Consider a ball rolling along the ground that is kicked by a player. If it is intentional, such as a punter who muffs the snap and kicks the ball while it is on the ground to prevent the defense from recovering it, it is a foul for illegally kicking the ball. However, if such a punter is swarmed by the defense while the ball is loose and the ball is inadvertently kicked in an attempt to obtain possession, it is a muff and not a foul (NFHS 2-27; NCAA 2-11-2).
Passing the ball
A pass is of course an intentional act and there is no such thing as an accidental or inadvertent pass. The word “intentional” plays a significant role in determining whether a forward pass or a fumble has occurred.
When a team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward toward the neutral zone, any intentional forward movement of his hand with the ball firmly in his control starts the forward pass. If a team B player contacts the passer or ball after forward movement begins and the ball leaves the passer’s hand, a forward pass is ruled regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player. That means a seemingly backward pass is a forward pass (NFHS 2-31-2 Note; NCAA 2-19- 2b).
That is an NFHS-only term but in this column it will be used to discuss players who go out of bounds and subsequently return to the field to make a play. In both codes, if a player is blocked or pushed out of bounds, he may legally participate during the down as long as he immediately re-enters the field. There are also restrictions on players of team K or team A who go out of bounds and return, but only NFHS has a prohibition on a player who intentionally goes out of bounds. Such players cannot go out of bounds and intentionally touch the ball, subsequently return to the field, influence the play or otherwise participate (9-6-2).
That begs the question of what constitutes intentionally going out of bounds? NCAA officials treat the rule literally. If a player leaves the field without being blocked out, it’s a foul if he returns. Some high school officials interpret that to mean any player who isn’t blocked out. A player who goes out and takes several steps off the field probably recognizes he has gone out of bounds. Players near the sideline who are about to be blocked and go out of bounds to avoid the block probably have done so intentionally. Other than those scenarios, a judgment of an intentional act is likely harsh.
That foul occurs when an ineligible team A receiver touches a forward pass. Intent is very important because if an ineligible receiver is inadvertently struck by a forward pass, there is no foul for illegal touching. It may be intentional grounding, however. Unlike NCAA, NFHS does not use the word intentional, but it does state for a foul to occur, he must “bat, muff or catch” the ball; those are intentional acts (NFHS 7-5-13; NCAA 7-3-11). So if the receiver puts his hands on the ball or tries to and touches it, it is an intentional act.
After years of differences, all football codes agree all tripping, including against a runner, is a foul. Tripping is the intentional use of the lower leg or foot to obstruct an opponent below the knee (NFHS 2-45; NCAA 2-28). The vast majority of tripping situations involve intent. Here’s a rare one that doesn’t.
As runner A1 runs through a hole in the line, blocker A3 moves his leg to improve his footing. In the process, charging B4 trips over A3’s leg.
A3’s action was not intended to impede B4. There is no foul.
Batting the ball is intentionally slapping or striking the ball with a hand or arm (NFHS 2-2; NCAA 2-28). Such inadvertent contact in an unsuccessful attempt to secure possession is a muff and not a foul (NFHS 2-27; NCAA 2-11-2). The key is an attempt to gain possession.
Forming a wedge has to be an intentional act to be a foul and only under NCAA rules (6-1-10). Formation of the wedge is not illegal when the kick is from an obvious onside kick formation, or if the play results in a touchback, free kick out of bounds or fair catch. Players who inadvertently get shoulder to shoulder within two yards of one another have not fouled. The official can determine intent by observing how they act once the potentially illegal alignment is achieved.
Backward pass out of bounds
That act is only a foul under NCAA rules (7-2-1). The motivation for a player to do that would be to conserve time. A surefire indicator is the lack of a potential receiver, but the game situation will indicate the potential for that foul.
That relatively new foul has shot to the forefront of inconsistently called fouls. The indicators of targeting make it clear that foul requires intentional action. One indicator is using the helmet as a weapon by lowering the head to make contact with the crown of the helmet. The other indicators include a launch or a crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust. Forcible contact is required in all cases for a foul to occur (NFHS 2-20; NCAA 9-1-3, 9-1-4).
Other fouls where “intentional” appears include: removing the helmet during the down (NCAA only 3-3-9d, 9-2-1a-1i) and contacting a game official (NFHS 9-4- 2; NCAA 9-2-4).
It would be remiss if we closed without adding at least a few words about the relatively common foul of intentional grounding. Of all fouls that require intent, grounding the ball is perhaps the most difficult to judge. For that reason, there are numerous guidelines to help officials determine if a foul has occurred. The one most often applied is throwing the ball into an area not occupied by an eligible team A receiver. In NCAA only, the passer is excused if he received the snap and maintained possession, has been outside the tackle box and throws the ball so that it crosses the neutral zone extended (NFHS 7-5-2d; NCAA 7-2-2h Exc.).
George Demetriou has been a football official since 1968. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.