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Men’s Lacrosse Rules: Now And Then

In this post, Gordon Corsetti analyzes the Laws of Lacrosse as written by WIlliam Beers, and adopted in 1868 by the National Lacrosse Association of Canada, and he compares those laws to the 2013 NFHS and NCAA rulebooks that all of us played, coached, and officiated by this past season.

For the last few weeks, LAS readers have joined me as we learned about the Original Lacrosse Game, and how the Standardized Men’s Lacrosse Game was played with rules developed by William George Beers. In this post, I analyze the Laws of Lacrosse as written by Beers and adopted in 1868 by the National Lacrosse Association of Canada, and I compare those laws to the 2013 NFHS and NCAA rulebooks that all of us played, coached, and officiated by this past season.

Beers follows today’s rulebook convention of stating Rule #, Section #, Article #. I will reference all of his rules using that convention as the “rules”  section of “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada” is a scant six pages long in the appendix. Specifically, pages 251-256 in the text and pages 274-279 in Google Books. Whenever I quote the 2013 NFHS or NCAA rulebooks I will follow the standard convention of citing Rule #, Section #, Article #.


Sport rulebooks are traditionally written in a type of faux-legalese that seems overly complex for the games they cover. Beers’ appendix covers twenty rules and a few situations for each rule in six short pages. The 2013 NFHS and NCAA rulebooks each cover seven rules in precisely eighty-six pages. Leonard DaVinci once said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Twenty rules in six pages is far simpler than seven rules in eighty-six, but most things tend to get more complicated over time.

The 2013 NFHS and NCAA rulebooks both cover the same seven rules in this order:

Rule 1 – The Game, Field and Equipment

Rule 2 – Game Personnel

Rule 3 – Time Factors

Rule 4 – Play of the Game (always the longest section)

Rule 5 – Personal and Ejection Fouls

Rule 6 – Technical Fouls

Rule 7 – Penalty Enforcement

Why did the twenty original rules get narrowed down to seven? Better organization mainly. A lot of Beers’ individual rules were interrelated so it made sense to combine, for example, the crosse, the ball, and the goals from three separate rules to three sections within Rule 1 – The Game, Field and Equipment.

Comparing & Contrasting Rules: 1868 to 2013

In this compare and contrast section, I will list the original rule followed by the approximate 2013 NFHS and NCAA rule in red. My comments on the original rules will be listed in bolded text.

Rule I – The Crosse (NFHS Rule 1.6, NCAA Rule 1.17)

Section 1: The crosse may be of any length to suit the player; woven with cat-gut, which must not be bagged. (“Cat-gut” is intended to mean raw hide, gut or clock strings, not cord or soft leather.) The netting must be flat when the ball is not on it. In its widest part he crosse shall not exceed one foot. No string must be brought through any hole at the side of the tip of the turn. A leading string, resting upon the top of the stick, may be used, but must not be fastened, so as to form a pocket, lower down the stick than to the end of the length strings.  The length strings must be woven to within two inches of their termination, so that the ball cannot catch is the meshes.

Section 2: Players may change their crosse during a match.

I like that the length of the crosse could be of “any length to suit the player” back in the day. While we have many hard and fast measurements for lacrosse sticks in our game today no one really complains about the length of a crosse, but there is plenty of debate about the width of the head. I’m in favor of wider crosses, primarily because it brings the game back to the original roots. 

Rule II – The Ball (NFHS Rule 1.5, NCAA Rule 1.16)

The Ball must be Indian rubber sponge, not less than eight and not more than nine inches in circumference. In matches, it must be furnished by the challenged party.

Today, the home team is responsible for providing legal game balls. They may be the challengers or not depending on who sets the schedule each season.

Rule III – The Goals (NFHS Rule 1.3, NCAA Rule 1.3)

The Goals may be placed at any distance from each other, and in any position agreeable to the captains of both sides. The top of the flag-poles must be six feet above the ground, including any top ornament, and six feet apart. In matches they must be furnished by the challenged party.

There is no mention of nets in the original rules, but they were likely added as the game evolved to catch the ball that passed through the goal plane as shots got faster and faster. I imagine that it would be difficult for players, coaches, officials and fans to determine if a 97 MPH shot passed through the goal plane and into the goal without a net moving from the ball making contact.

Rule IV – The Goal-Crease (NFHS Rule 1.3.3.b, NCAA Rule 1.4)

There shall be a line or crease, to be called the Goal-Crease, drawn in front of each goal, six feet from the flag-poles, within which no opponent must stand unless the ball has passed cover-point.

If the ball had moved far enough upfield any opponent could stand in the crease as this rule is written. However, if the ball passed where the cover-point defender was stationed it was a penalty. Nowadays opponents can only touch or stand in the crease during dead ball time.

Rule V – Umpires (NFHS Rule 2.5, NCAA Rule 2.6)

Section 1: There must be two umpires at each goal, one for each side, who must stand behind the flags when the ball is near or nearing the goal. Unless otherwise agreed upon by the captains, they must not be members of either club engaged in a match; nor shall they be changed during a match except for reasons of illness or injury. They must be thoroughly acquainted with the game, and in every way competent to act. Before a match begins, they shall draw the players up in line, and see that the regulations respecting the crosse, spiked soles, etc., and, in deciding any of these points, shall take the opinion of the captains and the referee. They must know, before the commencement of a match, the number of games to be played. They shall have power to decide all disputes, subject to Rule VI, and to suspend, for any time during the match, any player infringing these laws; the game to go on during such suspension.

Section 2: No umpire shall, either directly or indirectly, be interested in any bet upon the result of the match, No person shall be allowed to speak to the umpires, or in any way distract their attention, when the ball is near or nearing their goal.

Section 3: When “foul”  has been called, the umpires must leave their posts and cry “time,”  and from that time the ball must not be touched by either party, nor must the players move from the positions in which they happen to be at the moment, until the umpires have returned to their posts, and “play”  is called. If a player should be in possession of the ball when the umpires leave their posts, he must drop it on the ground in front. If the ball enters the goal after the umpires have left their posts, it will not count. The jurisdiction of the umpires shall not extend beyond the day of their appointment. They shall not decide in any manner involving the continuance of a match beyond the day on which it is played.

As a modern-day official this rule is too cool. The way it is written there were four umpires required per game. Two umpires, one for each side, stood at each goal. Ostensibly to watch for infractions near the goal-crease and to confirm goals scored. I particularly like Section 2, which states that no one can distract the umpire while the ball nears the goal! That would make my life as an official so much more relaxing.

Rule VI – Referee (NFHS Rule 2.5, NCAA Rule 2.6)

The umpires shall select a referee, to whom all disputed games and points, whereon they are a tie, may be left for decision, and who must be thoroughly acquainted with the game, and in every way competent to act. He shall take the evidence of the players particularly interested, the respective opinions of the differing umpires, and, if necessary, the opinions and offers of the captains, in cases where the discontinuance of the game is threatened. His decision shall be final. Any side rejecting his decision, by refusing to continue a match, shall be declared the losers. The referee must be on the ground at the commencement of and during the match, but during play, he shall not be between the two goals.

I’m geeking out over this rule more than Rule V. I read this rule to mean that games were officiated by five-man crews of four umpires and one referee. In the 19th century, the referee was on the field of play but out of the way. I really like the part of the rule that states if one team can’t agree or abide with the referee’s authority that the game was forfeit and the complaining team declared the losers! If that rule existed today I imagine Head Coaches would develop a longer fuse if they could lose a game by rejecting the referee’s decision.

Rule VII – Captains (NFHS Rule 2.2, NCAA Rule 2.3)

Captains, to superintend the play, may be appointed by each side, previous to the commencement of a match. They shall be members of the club by whom they are appointed, and of no other. They may or may not be players in a match; if not, they shall not carry a crosse, nor shall they be dressed in Lacrosse uniform. They shall select umpires, and toss up for choice of goal. They shall report any infringement of the laws during a match to the nearest umpires.

I immediately zeroed in on the locations of captains in the NFHS and NCAA rulebook. Captains are listed before coaches and game officials, which I believe is a direct hold over from “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada”. Captains are listed in Chapter VI (page 90, Google Books page 113) way before Beers ever gets to the standardized rules. I think Beers valued captains above all others associated with a lacrosse game. They were the individuals who were likely the best players, but also the best leaders. They were the ones that guys from both teams looked at with respect.

While captains today fill more of a figurehead role from their more varied responsibilities in Beers’ era, I would challenge all elected team captains to emulate what the role of captain meant in the early days of standardized lacrosse. If no one stepped up to be a captain back then, the games could not progress to the first face off as the captain was critical to selecting players, lining them up, helping to resolve disputes, and managing their teams during a game.

Rule VIII – Names of Players (NFHS Rule 2.1, NCAA Rule 2.1)

The players of each side shall be designated as follows: “Goal-keeper,” who defends the goal; “Point,” first man out from goal; “Cover-Point,”  in front of Point; “Centre,” who faces; “Home,” nearest opponent’s goal. Others shall be termed “Fielders.”

Not much to add here. The Centre can easily be recognized as today’s FOGO, and the Home is likely what we term the crease attackman today.

Rule IX – Miscellaneous (Too broad of a section to point to specific NFHS or NCAA rules)

Section 1: Twelve players shall constitute a full field, and they must have been regular members of the club they represent, and no other, for at least thirty days prior to a match.

I am not sure why the teams were scaled down from twelve to ten on-field players. Perhaps when the fields were brought to a smaller 100×60 yards twelve players per side was too many. I would like to see what the game would look like with two extra midfielders per team. Think about it – eight on eight instead of six on six! Imagine what face offs would look like with two more midfielders from each team on the wings; that’s ten players fighting for a ground ball instead of the usual six!

Section 2: A match shall be decided by the winning of three games out of five, unless otherwise agreed upon.

I still can’t find a mention of how many goals wins a game, but I believe that requirement was likely hashed out by the captains prior to game day. Think of applying this original rule on top of the rules today. What would the 2013 D1 Lacrosse Championship have looked like if Duke and Syracuse had to play best three out of five, with each game lasting four fifteen-minute quarters? Which team would win the most games? Duke or Syracuse?

Section 3: Captains shall arrange, previous to a match, whether it is to be played out in one day, postponed at a stated hour, or in the event of rain, darkness, etc., or to be considered a draw under certain circumstance; and, if postponed, if it is to be resumed where left off.

Section 4: If postponed and resumed where left off, there shall be no change of players on either side.

Section 5: Either side may claim at least five minutes’ rest, and not more than ten, between each game.

Now we have confirmation on why halftime is ten minutes long.

Section 6: No Indian must play in a match for a white club, unless previously agreed upon.

As I established in previous posts, Beers believed in the superior athletic abilities of the Native American players, and he also believed that no white Canadian player could ever keep up. I think this rule was to prevent white clubs from recruiting Native American players to clean up on the field, much the same way every youth sports movie has a bad team finding some incredibly awesome player to turn their season around.

Section 7: After each game, the players must change sides.

Section 8: No change of players must be made after a match has commenced, except for reasons of accident or injury during the match. When a match has been agreed upon, and one side is deficient in the number of players, their opponents may either limit their own numbers to equalize the sides, or compel the other side to fill up the compliment.

Rule X – Spike Soles (NFHS Rule 1.9.1.f.1, NCAA Rule 1.21.e)

No player must wear spiked soles.

This rule survived the test of time. While we have cleats, the rules specify allowable ranges and permitted materials. No one wants a player to get their legs gouged by spiked cleats.

Rule XI – Touching the Ball with the Hand (NFHS Rule 6.5.2.a, NCAA Rule 6.6.a)

The ball must not be touched with the hand, save in case of Rules XII and XIII.

Rule XII – Goal-Keeper (NFHS Rule 4.19.1, NCAA Rule 4.18.a)

Goal-keeper, while defending goal within the goal-crease, may pat away with his hand or black the ball in any manner.

Rule XIII – Ball in an inaccessible place (NFHS Rule 4.21.1, NCAA Rule 4.20)

Should the ball lodge in any place inaccessible to the crosse, it may be taken out by the hand; and the party picking it up, must “face” with his nearest opponent.

This rule evolved into Alternate Possession, or AP, as a cleaner way of handling situations where possession of the ball was ambiguous.

Rule XIV – Ball Out of Bounds (NFHS Rule 4.6, NCAA Rule 4.6)

Balls thrown out of bounds must be picked up with the hand, and “faced” for at the nearest spot within the bounds.

You read that correctly, every time the ball went out of bounds the two nearest players would face off. Games today would take forever to finish if officials had to set up a face off for every single ball out of bounds.

Rule XV – Throwing the Crosse (NFHS Rule 6.5.2.b.1, NFHS Rule 6.6.b.1)

No player shall throw his crosse at a player or at the ball under any circumstances.

Rule XVI – Accidental Game (There is no NFHS or NCAA rule that approximates this original rule)

Should the ball be accidentally put through the goal by one of the players defending it, it is game for the side attacking that goal. Should it be put through a goal by any one not actually a player, it shall not count.

This is clearly a rule for the best three out of five games that were played back then, but think of how this rule would apply to the game today. Imagine if a team was winning 9-8 and scored a goal against themselves. According to original Rule XVI, the winning team would lose the game due to their own-goal!

Rule XVII – Balls Catching in the Netting (NFHS Rule 4.7.1, NCAA Rule 4.7.b)

Should the ball catch in the netting, the crosse must immediately be struck on the ground so as to dislodge it.

According to today’s rules, this is no longer applied. When an official sees a ball stuck in a crosse there is to be an immediate whistle and the ball awarded to the opposing team.

Rule XVIII – Rough Play, etc. (NFHS Rule 5, NCAA Rule 5)

No player shall hold another with his crosse, nor shall he grasp an opponent’s stick with his hands, under his arms, or between his legs; nor shall any player hold his opponent’s crosse with his crosse in any way to keep him from the ball until another player reaches it. No player shall deliberately strike or trip another, nor push with the hand; nor must any player jump at to shoulder an opponent, nor wrestle with the legs entwined so as to throw his opponent.

Two sentences in the original rules cover holding, pushing, tripping, slashing, illegal body checking, and unnecessary roughness. When body checking was brought into Men’s lacrosse the rules had to be expanded from this “Rough Play” section to differentiate between legal and illegal body contact.

Rule XIX – Threatening to Strike (NFHS Rule 5.12.1.a , NCAA Rule 5.13)

Any player raising his fist to strike another, shall be immediately ruled out of the match.

It makes me feel good as an official to know that fighting or threatening to hit another player has always been an ejectable infraction.

Rule XX – Foul Play (Only the entirety of Rule 7 in the NFHS and NCAA rulebooks approximates the following two section of Rule XX)

Section 1: Any player considering himself purposely injured during play, must report to his captain, who must report to the umpire, who shall warn the player complained of.

Section 2: In the event of persistent fouling, after cautioning by the umpires, the latter may declare the match lost by the side thus offending, or may remove the offending player or players, and compel the side to finish the match short-handed.

Applying this rule to today, players would do the following when fouled:

  1. #6 reports that he was fouled to his designated captain
  2. The captain finds the nearest umpire and tells him that #6 is complaining of being fouled by #13 on the opposing team
  3. #13 receives a warning from the umpire

That is astonishing! Umpires didn’t originally call fouls and send players into the box to serve time. It was up to the player that got fouled to send his grievance up the chain of command. The only time the umpire did anything was if one player got complained about more than once. This might have worked in 19th century Canada, but there is no way this method of penalty enforcement would ever work today.

Rule XXI – Interrupted Matches (NFHS Rule 3.5, NCAA Rule 3.5)

In the event of a match being interrupted by darkness or to any other cause considered right by the umpires, and one side having won two games – the other none – the side having won the two games shall be declared winners of the match. Should one side have won two games, and the other one, the match shall be considered a draw.

Rule XXII – Amendments (No rule approximates this original rule, however anyone may request rule changes for the NFHS and NCAA rules committees to deliberate on)

Any amendment or alteration proposed to be made in any part of these laws, shall be made only at the Annual Convention of the National Association, and by a three-fourths vote of the members present.

Wrap Up

As a modern-day lacrosse official, I find these original rules to be fascinating. They explain so much as to why the game is the way it is today, but they also make me wonder what the game really looked like being played using these rules. I think it would be a ridiculously cool project to find twenty-four capable players, two strong captains, five quality officials, get some wooden crosses built to original specifications, and videotape a best three out of five series using the 1868 rules. I think that would be a terrific tribute to the original Men’s lacrosse game, and a fun way to introduce new players and fans to the game by showing how lacrosse has evolved.

I hope all the LAS readers enjoyed these posts and I’m looking forward to writing further about the history of lacrosse, answering rule questions, and giving my advice on how to grow lacrosse in developing areas!

As I have done in my earlier posts, I leave you with a quote from Beers’ book that exemplifies the differences between the Native American game and the standardized game that Beers developed:

We were invited by an Indian chief, at Caughnawaga, early one morning last summer, to witness a game of Lacrosse on the common, among about thirty Indian residents; and after watching a hard-fought game of an hour, the gentle savage turned to us, and said, in broken English: ‘You can’t play Lacrosse like that. You smash heads, cut hands, make blood. [Native Americans] play all day; no hurt, except when drunk.’ It is very rare than an Indian is injured or injures ever so slightly when playing with his fellow red-skins.

To all the players out there I implore you to learn the lesson given by that Chief to William Beers. When you step out onto the field go play knowing that your opponents are brothers in the same struggle. Don’t try to smash heads, cut hands, or make blood. Be artful and scientific with your play, and always endeavor to honor those that played before you. If you do that then you demonstrate your respect to both the old rules and the new.

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