Photo Credit: Bob Messina

The NFHS Softball Rules Committee made two significant changes to player equipment, involving the wearing of head coverings and beads, and approved six other rule changes for the upcoming 2022 season. The Softball Rules Committee becomes the seventh NFHS sports rules committee to modify rules this year related to religious and cultural backgrounds.

The committee made those changes at its June 14-16 meeting held virtually and those changes were subsequently approved by the NFHS Board of Directors. The rule changes are outlined in perceived order of importance.

Special thanks to Sandy Searcy, NFHS director of sports and staff liaison for softball, for reviewing this article.

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Hair Control Devices (3-2-5b)

The committee removed language prohibiting hard items to control the hair. This rule change clarifies adornments such as beads can be worn in the hair and aligns with other NFHS rules codes. The committee did not believe the use of hard items, such as beads, presented an injury risk to other players. In contrast, the prohibition of such items has been interpreted as adversely affecting one’s cultural background.

Plastic visors and bandannas are still prohibited with the rule change, but items such as bobby pins, barrettes and hair clips no longer have a size restriction as that language was removed from the rulebook.

Play 1: While walking the field before the game, the umpires notice two team A players wearing (a) beads in their hair, (b) bobby pins in their hair, (c) bandanas, or (d) plastic visors. Ruling 1: Legal in (a) and (b); illegal in (c) and (d) and those items must be removed before the players may participate.

Religious Headwear (3-2-5c)

Players are permitted to wear soft and secure headwear for religious purposes without prior state association approval. In the past, players needed to secure prior approval from their respective state high school association in order to wear religious head coverings. The revised rule states head coverings worn for religious reasons must still be made of non-abrasive, soft materials and must fit securely so they are unlikely to come off during play. Head coverings worn for medical reasons still require state association approval, however.

Play 2: The pitcher for team A is wearing a (a) hijab, (b) yarmulke, or (c) helmet made of polyethylene foam due to a history of concussions. Ruling 2: In (a) and (b), the items are legal provided they fit securely and are made of non-abrasive, soft materials. In (c), the player must have prior state association approval to wear it as it is being worn for medical reasons.

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Runner’s Lane Interference (8-2-6)

The committee clarified a runner is considered outside the running lane when either foot last contacting the ground is completely outside the lane. The new language more adequately describes the intent of the rule and will provide more consistent enforcement of the rule. The rule previously stated either foot had to be completely outside the lane and in contact with the ground. This led to inconsistency in calling interference when a runner had a foot in the air, but that foot had contacted the ground completely outside the line prior to being in the air.

Play 3: B1 lays down a bunt in front of home plate. F2 fields the ball and throws it to first base to try to retire B1. The ball hits B1 five feet in front of first base while (a) both feet are in contact with the ground completely outside the running lane, (b) one foot is completely outside the running lane in contact with the ground, (c) both feet are in the air and her left foot is completely outside the lane when it last contacted the ground, (d) her left foot is in contact with the chalk of the running lane and her right foot is completely inside the lane, or (e) both feet are in the air and both feet touched the chalk of the runner’s lane when they last contacted the ground. Ruling 3: In (a), (b) and (c), the runner would be guilty of interference if the umpire judged she interfered with the fielder taking the throw at first base. In (d) and (e), the runner is legally inside the runner’s lane when contacted by the ball and would not be out for interference.

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Damaged Bat (3-6-21 & Penalty)

A new article was added to the “bench and field conduct” area of the rulebook regarding damaged bats. While the committee made a significant rule change in 2019 to define a damaged bat, the rule didn’t specify what happens if a player brings back into the game a damaged bat that had been previously removed by an umpire. The new article and penalty addresses this situation with the batter called out and the offender and head coach restricted to the dugout for the remainder of the game.

Play 4: In the third inning, the umpire notices a crack in the bat A1 is using and removes it from the game. In the fourth inning, A2 comes to bat and after the first pitch, the umpire notices the bat is the same one that was removed the inning prior. Ruling 4: A2 is declared out and both A2 and team A’s head coach are restricted to the dugout for the remainder of the game.

Coach Attire (3-5-3)

This rule change clarifies items which can be worn by a coach in live-ball area. The new language helps clear up for umpires what is appropriate and inappropriate attire. The new rule states a coach shall be attired in a school uniform or jersey/coaching shirt with slacks, shorts, or other leg coverings in school colors or colors of khaki, black, white or grey. The previous wording of the rule stated coaches had to be in slacks, shorts or warmup suits and the new language allows more options for leg coverings.

Play 5: At the pregame meeting at the plate, team A’s coach is wearing (a) black leggings, (b) grey dress slacks, or (c) blue jeans. Ruling 5: Both (a) and (b) are legal attire for the coach. In (c), the coach would not be permitted in the field of play after the pregame conference for the duration of the game or until the coach changed into appropriate attire. Blue jeans are not allowed.

Distracting Items on the Pitcher (6-2-2 and Note)

The rules committee removed language from rule 6-2-2 and placed it into a note under the penalty. The reasoning was to remind players, coaches and umpires about distracting items worn by a pitcher, but that is not part of rule 6-2-2’s penalty, which is an illegal pitch. Instead, the penalty is addressed in 3-2-9 and the distracting item is considered illegal equipment and shall be removed.

Play 6: Team A’s pitcher has an optic-yellow wristband on the wrist of her throwing arm. Ruling 6: The pitcher shall remove the wristband before she is allowed to participate.

Base Anchor Systems (1-2-1)

This rule change clarifies bases may be designed to disengage from their anchor system. The change places rule language with other regulations covering the field and its equipment. The language was added to rule 1 where all field and equipment rules exist. Similar language is already addressed in rule 8-8-14 Eff., which states that a runner reaching a base safely will not be out for being off the base if it becomes dislodged.

Ball Specification (1-3-3)

This rule change states new ball specifications will be required effective Jan. 1, 2025, for high school competition. Balls manufactured with current specifications will be permitted through the 2024 season. The change in 2025 will occur in compression and weight/circumference for balls in fast-pitch competition. The changes in the way the requirements are specified do not represent a difference in ball performance but allow for better control over the manufacturing process. This change aligns ball tolerance specifications with other rule codes.

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“High school softball is indeed in a good place relative to rules,” Searcy said. “Most rule modifications can be considered editorial in nature, simply clarifications to current rules. However, it is vital to continue to monitor changing trends in equipment, injuries as they relate to overuse, and how rule changes affect risk. The NFHS Softball Rules Committee continues to be vigilant in this regard.”

Points of Emphasis

Huddles between innings.

Player safety is always a concern. For this reason, huddles between innings by the defensive team coming off the field is a point of emphasis for the 2022 season. If a team chooses to huddle on the field after the third out while the other team is warming up, it should do so in a safe location. In between innings as the defensive team takes the field and begins to throw the ball, the offensive team should only huddle in an area that does not impede the warmup of the defensive team nor places it in an area where overthrows are likely. Huddling should be limited to the amount of time needed for the defensive players to make their warmup throws, during the one minute permitted by rule. Huddling in appropriate areas will assist minimizing risk to participants.

Guidance for pitcher utilization.

The past several seasons have seen an increasing concern regarding overuse injuries of the shoulder and elbow among softball pitchers at the high school level. The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) and the NFHS Softball Rules Committee continue to monitor injury rates through the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study (RIO), which is an annual collection of injuries experienced while participating in high school sports. At this time, the available injury data do not warrant the implementation of pitch or inning limitations, however the NFHS Softball Rules Committee and the NFHS SMAC will continue to monitor RIO and other available research regarding shoulder and elbow injury risk for high school softball pitchers.

Assisting a runner.

Coaches or any other team personnel are not permitted to assist a runner in any manner during playing action. When a home run occurs, although the ball is out of play, runners have live-ball running responsibilities and are still required to run the bases legally. If someone other than another runner physically assists a runner, the assisted runner is ruled out. Similarly, a runner would be out for passing another runner. If a runner misses a base and it is properly appealed, the runner would also be ruled out.

Pitcher simulating taking a sign.

While the pivot foot is in contact with the pitcher’s plate and prior to bringing the hands together, the pitcher must take or simulate taking a signal from the catcher. A signal may be taken from a coach either by hand signal, verbal call or by looking at a wristband with a playbook/playcard. This signal can be taken while in contact with the pitcher’s plate or while standing behind the pitcher’s plate prior to taking a position in contact with the pitcher’s plate. None of these actions are illegal by rule; the only requirement is that no matter where or from whom the actual signal is obtained, the pitcher must take a position with the pivot foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate with the hands separated and simulate taking a signal from the catcher. Requiring the pitcher to take a position in contact with the pitcher’s plate and simulating taking a signal from the catcher prior to bringing the hands together allows the batter to prepare for the start of the pitch. If the pitcher does not pause after stepping onto the pitcher’s plate, an illegal pitch shall be called.

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