Proposed Rule Changes in NCAA Volleyball-“Cui Prodest” (Who Benefits?)

The AVCA Rules Committee recently recommended rule changes for collegiate volleyball. The most controversial was “allowing players to contact the ball more than once with any part of the body in a single attempt on a team’s second contact when the ball is played to a teammate.” Although given the challenges facing our world, this rule change is not the most critical. However, since I have yet to be asked my opinion on the crisis in urban education or the cost of cereal, I’ll throw out my thoughts on this topic.

Whenever there is a substantial rule change, I ponder, “Who benefits?” Is the rule change to benefit the audience? Or, perhaps the not-so-good setter? Or the referee no longer needs to make a call? All of the above?

Other sports, with positive intentions, modify their game with rule changes. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr recently commented on rule changes in the NBA that impact how defense is played.

Steve Kerr

So, who has benefitted from the NBA rule changes? In theory, the beneficiaries are the spectators in order to satisfy the zeal for 3-pointers, slam dunks, and high-scoring games. However, the television ratings for the NBA have dropped significantly. Changing defensive rules to appease point-hungry spectators and growing the television audience has been a miserable failure. Spectators would appreciate the skills of these remarkable athletes if the referees officiated the game as intended. For example, when is the last time you’ve seen a traveling violation in the NBA?

Will the proposed rule changes for volleyball benefit volleyball spectators? Both the in-person and television audiences for volleyball seem to be growing at a wonderful rate with the current rules. So, I doubt this rule change would have a significant impact. Some will say that by not calling a double contact, the rallies will be extended, thereby making the game more exciting for the spectator. I would prefer rallies be extended by teams playing better defense and improving their blocking as opposed to legalizing an ugly play.

Would the referees be considered a beneficiary of the rule change? The good referees rarely had an issue with calling this violation. They made the call, and generally, the call was correct. As with all humans, the referees will make occasional errors. If consistency is an issue, perhaps more training of the referees is in order. So, perhaps poor referees would benefit as it takes this call away from them. However, I hesitate to endorse rule changes to help poor referees.

As I watched the NCAA semi-final and final matches, a double contact on the second contact was rarely called (if at all). The lack of double-contact calls was not the result of lenient referees. The players, in general, and specifically the setters, possess high-level skills, so the double contacts didn’t occur. I often hear that the referees do not call double contacts on the set in international play. Having coached the USA U-18 team for ten years, I can confidently say that is untrue. Double contacts are rarely called because the players’ skill level is such that double contacts rarely occur. So, this rule change will have little impact on the good teams or skilled setters.

If the rule change has minimal impact on good players, won’t impact the growing popularity of the sport, and doesn’t impact the good referees, it would seem this rule change is a solution in search of a problem.

I would suggest the immediate beneficiaries of this rule are the younger players. We all want the young ones to use their hands and develop this skill. Having players 14 and under use a forearm pass for 90% of the contacts is bothersome. But the referees could facilitate this just by not blowing their whistle, not by a rule change.

In search of a justification for allowing double hits on the set, I always hear that there is no benefit to the offending team if double contacts on the setter are not called. In fact, rather than a benefit, the ensuing third contact is generally not a quality attack (downball or free ball). Unfortunately, there is an advantage to allowing a rally to continue after a mangled set. I called upon my stat guru, Eduardo Fiallos, Technical Coordinator of the University of Colorado volleyball program, to supply the following information. He equated receiving a free ball with an in-system pass from serve receive. The free ball and the in-system pass allow all the offensive options to be available to the setter. The CU Buffs, a quality program, had an attack efficiency of 34% on an in-system pass. Their efficiency from a free ball was 36%. Statistically, that is not an appreciable difference. The advantage for the team that mangled the second contact is that they can still win the point. If there were no advantage to a double contact, then the offending team would be whistled for an illegal contact, or CU would have an attack efficiency of 100% from a freeball or downball. Going back to the premise of this article, who benefits? Allowing a rally to continue after a double contact, thereby providing a team an opportunity to win the point, is an inherent benefit to the transgressing team.

We promote sloppy play by reducing the criteria for quality play. I hesitate to endorse a rule that allows a player to set the ball with their feet.

I look at the time when all serves were received with the forearms. The play was clean, and arguably, the accuracy of the passing was better. When receiving with the hands was deemed legal, the accuracy diminished, and the players quit moving their feet to put their bodies in position to pass with their forearms. The results were cringeworthy, but legal contacts with the hands.

I won’t lie awake in bed at night about this rule change. I didn’t see a real need for the change. The game will move forward. Players and coaches will adjust. The best teams will still win.