Dangerous Play: Recognition and Application of the Rule

By Don Dennison, NISOA National Clinician; NISOA National Assessor; Chair, NISOA Rules Comparison Guide; NISOA Hall of Fame

(Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in “For the Intercollegiate Referee” column on the NISOA Web Site. It is repeated in “For the Interscholastic Referee” column because of it’s relevance to the NFHS Soccer Rules.)

The prohibition against engaging in play that is dangerous or likely to cause injury to oneself or an opponent has been a part of both the NCAA Rules (Rule 12, Sec. 9) and the High School Rules (Rule 12, Sec. 6) since those rules were first formulated.

The safety of the players is always of paramount importance to the Referee and care must be taken to insure as much as is possible, that the players do not endanger themselves or their opponents during the match.  It is interesting to note that under the NCAA rule, dangerous play involves an act likely to cause injury to self or an opponent, while the High School rules prohibit dangerous play that may be likely to cause injury to any player, which of course includes a teammate. This is an important distinction and care must be taken by the Referee to insure that the correct rule is applied.

What should the Referee look for in determining dangerous play?  All that is required is to decide whether an unintentional act of physical, or attempted, contact is dangerous to the person committing the act or to an opponent (NCAA). This is not always easy and there are few written guidelines other than approved rulings in both NCAA and NFHS rule books to assist in making a proper determination.  Great discretion is given to the Referee(s) in applying this rule.

Early soccer rules before the 1900s enumerated certain acts such as tripping or pushing that were deemed illegal, but they were silent concerning “dangerous play”. The first appearance of dangerous play in the International Rules (FIFA) related to an attempt by an attacker to kick a ball being held by the goalkeeper. Acts such as this were to be dealt with promptly and may warrant a sanction such as a caution (nowadays a yellow card).  The current penalty for dangerous play is an indirect free kick from the spot of the infraction, however, in the example just noted, if any actual contact is made with the foot against the keeper, the offense escalates to a much more serious act and would be considered kicking, a direct free kick penal rule violation, with possible ejection (red card) required for serious foul play.

There are many other acts that may be judged as dangerous.  As one example, unintentionally lying on top of the ball (by a field player) should not be penalized until such time as an opponent is near and is prevented from playing the ball in fear of injuring the player lying on top of the ball.  This is an example of dangerous play being called by the Referee for the purpose of preventing an injury to the innocent player who happened to fall on the ball.

There is a misconception prevalent in the game that a player who is lying on the ground cannot play the ball. This is generally untrue, unless an opponent is quite close, in which case the Referee must determine the possible danger to the player on the ground.

Scissors or bicycle kicks are permitted in the game unless an opponent is within playing distance and the kicker’s foot is, in the opinion of the Referee, dangerously high so as to endanger the opponent.  If no one is within playing distance, there can be no offense.

The high kick (raising the foot above waist level) is another act that may, or may not, be dangerous play. Determination must be made as to the proximity and danger to an opponent (or in HS rules – any player).

The opposite of a high kick is the low header.  This is the situation when a defender dives with his/her head in a low position to contact the ball but is close to an opponent who may be trying to kick the ball.  This is clearly dangerous play, but the Referee should always allow an exception for the goalkeeper who is attempting to dive on the ball.

Various types of tackles that otherwise may appear to be clean and acceptable, can be deemed dangerous.  For example a sliding tackle where the foot contacts the ball, but where the tackler’s other leg is raised up with cleats showing, might be called dangerous by the Referee.  A plunger tackle, where the player jumps onto the ball with two feet together could cause injury to a nearby opponent. This should be called a dangerous play violation.

One other act, quite prevalent today, is the goalkeeper who has possession of the ball, and raises his knee to fend off an opponent.  If you feel that this is dangerous to the opponent, call it, but it would be best to avoid having an indirect free kick right in front of the goal, so the best technique might be to merely verbally warn the goalkeeper to refrain from such acts.

The situations listed above are merely examples. Other actions will occur in your career that will no doubt require your instant interpretation and discretion in order to insure the safety of the players.