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Change The False Start Rule, PLEASE!

May 23, 2008 - Erik Brown
I want to preface this post by saying that I have the highest regard for the PIAA officials that I have observed at the many high school and junior high track meets that I attend each year. I also want to say that I am very impressed with the information I found on the PIAA website that provides guidance to the men and women who serve as PIAA Track & Field referees, starters, timers, finish judges, and umpires. Clearly, a great deal of time, effort, and thought has gone into developing a comprehensive set of rules and instructions for these officials to follow. But - and you knew there had to be a “but” in here - would someone please change the false start rule! 
Imagine you’re at a high school football game. The offense breaks the huddle and the players get into their stance. As the quarterback is calling the signals, one of the offensive linemen comes up out of his stance and begins to block before the ball is snapped. The yellow flags fly. The referee points to the culprit and ejects him from the game. You turn to the person beside you and ask what the heck is going on. He or she says, “oh yeah, they changed the illegal procedure rule to be just like the false start rule in track & field.”
Or, imagine you’re at a basketball game. Your daughter reports to the scorer’s table to be substituted into the game. There’s a break in the action and she steps onto the floor before the official beckons her into the game. The whistle blows and the ref sends her back to the bench. No basketball for you!
Seem a little harsh? When a false start occurs at a high school or junior high track & field meet in Pennsylvania, the athlete who committed the false start is ejected from that event. I suppose you could argue that because an athlete may enter up to four events at a track meet, that it’s more analogous to being ejected for a quarter of a football or basketball game. Sorry, but that’s still too harsh.
Consider that the false start rule for the NCAA and for international track & field competitions is more lenient. At these levels, a false start by an athlete basically results in a warning to the entire field for that heat. If another false start occurs for that heat, the athlete committing the subsequent false start is ejected from that event – whether they committed the first false start or not. Of course you always hate to see an athlete disqualified for a false start, but I think this approach strikes the correct balance. Why hold high school and junior high athletes to a higher standard?
Furthermore, the PIAA false start rule is not a time saver. The remaining athletes still need to be called back to their starting blocks. The race is still run. From what I have observed, I do not believe there are considerably more false starts at the NCAA and international levels of competition, so I don’t just don’t believe a “time saved” argument has merit.
Finally, isn’t the entire purpose of having a high school or junior high track & field program to encourage and promote participation in the sport? Doesn’t disqualifying an athlete from participation for something as minor as a single false start run totally counter to that goal?
I’ll ask you to imagine one last scenario. Imagine your son or daughter trains hard and qualifies for one of the big invitational meets or their district championship meet. You leave work early or re-arrange your weekend plans to be in attendance, maybe you drive an hour or more to get there (not an exaggeration if you’re from District 6!). Maybe their grandparents drive an hour or more to be there as well. You wait for their event and then their heat. The big moment finally comes. The starter says, “runners, take your marks… set!...” You hold your breath, and… BANG, BANG!! Your heart sinks, someone jumped. It was your kid. The starter – only doing his or her job – disqualifies them from the event, possibly the only event they were entered into for the day. You leave feeling disappointed and frustrated. Not because your son or daughter lost, that would be OK. No, this is even worse. Then your teary-eyed child turns to you and says, “I think I’ll play baseball next year.” You panic and scream, “NO!”. Suddenly you find yourself sitting up in your bed. Thank God! It was all a very bad dream!

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