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If you’ve ever tuned in to an NFL football game, you’ve likely noticed the coaches on the sidelines sporting single or double cupped massive headphones with attached microphones. But these headsets aren’t for ordering post-game pizza. Instead, they serve as tools for constant communication between the coaches.
Since 1994, the NFL has allowed communication between coaches and players under specific circumstances and controlled regulations. It’s a bit complex, but we’ll break it down for you.
What are the NFL rules regarding player headsets?
NCAA Division I Football Headset Rules
Let’s clear up one thing: there’s a distinction between players and coaches wearing headsets in NCAA football. College football players on the field are not permitted to communicate with the sidelines via technology. Unlike the pros, quarterbacks and other players in college football aren’t equipped with speakers in their helmets.
Additionally, there are limitations on the number of coaches who can wear headsets. You can find more information on the coach’s headset rule reminder issued by the NCAA Rules Committee in 2019. In Division I NCAA football, each team can use a maximum of 23 headsets. Coaches and coaching assistants receive 15 headsets for coaching purposes, while the remaining 8 are allocated for non-coaching activities or listen-only speakers. Conference rules can further enhance and manage these headset categories.
If you belong to a specific conference and want more information, consult your conference’s rule book to find any regulations concerning “coaches’ phones, headsets, or other communication devices.” Note that the exemption from playing rules penalties only applies to “coaches’ communication devices,” not “coaches’ and players’ communication devices.”
NFL Coach and Player Headset Rules
Now, let’s delve into how headsets are utilized in the NFL. To answer that, we must rewind to the Cleveland era Browns in 1956. Two inventors who were avid Cleveland Browns fans pioneered the radio application of headsets for quarterbacks.
The Browns’ innovative use of technology caught the attention of the opposing coach during a game against the Detroit Lions. The Lions’ coach wasn’t thrilled with this new development and voiced his complaint to the NFL board. As a result, all headset communication from coaches to players on the field was banned.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the league finally approved radio communication with the quarterback. Before that, coaches could communicate via headsets, but not with the players. The league permitted teams to add speakers to players’ headsets, with some reservations even from coaches.
In 2008, the league expanded communications to include one defensive player as well. These rules regarding on-field communications are as follows:
- On-field players with microphones are limited to two players.
- One offensive player, the quarterback, is allowed communication.
- One defensive player, the middle linebacker, is allowed communication.
- Players can only listen and are not allowed to speak.
- NFL players’ helmets do not have built-in microphones for communicating with coaches.
- Players equipped with communication equipment in their helmets have a green dot marking on the back.
- Communication to on-field players is cutoff with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
- If one side’s communication fails, neither team is allowed to use communication technology.
- Both teams’ communication links must be operational for anyone to communicate with players.
How is it set up in the helmet?
The standard NFL helmet does not come equipped with communication technology. In order to pass inspection before a game, a helmet must not contain any communication-related components. Only two players on the field are allowed any form of electronic equipment in their helmets. Typically, this includes the quarterback on offense and the middle linebacker on defense. You can easily identify these helmets by the prominent green sticker on the back.
Inside a quarterback’s or middle linebacker’s helmet, you’ll find two speakers and no microphones. Think of it as a pair of ultimate headphones. The speakers are positioned at ear level on the sides of the helmet, providing direct access to the ears. This setup minimizes any muffling caused by hair or fabric. However, these helmets are not permitted to have microphones, making the communication one-way only.
The purpose of this communication system is to provide on-field directions for plays and formations. Due to time limits imposed by the play clock, there aren’t many opportunities for communication. Nonetheless, experienced players appreciate the vote of confidence and perspective these helmets provide, especially in unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, new players often heavily rely on advice and guidance from their sideline coach in novel circumstances.
What about the noise from the crowd?
One potential hindrance to effective communication is the noise from the crowd. You might assume that speakers in the helmet would be drowned out by the loud cheers and chants. While helmets can only insulate so much noise, experienced players have consistently remarked that the communication remains clear and sounds like a loudspeaker, even amidst the roar of the crowd. Background noise may be audible, but the coach’s voice still comes through loud and clear.
Is it radio or Bluetooth?
When on-field communication was introduced in 1994, various tech companies vied for sponsorship deals to provide headsets for coaches and helmet speakers for players. In 1999, the league struck a sponsorship agreement with Motorola, officially supplying coaches with headsets. However, these weren’t off-the-shelf headsets. They had to be top-notch, akin to rockets compared to standard models.
Each coach had specific preferences, with some favoring single-can headsets and others preferring the traditional two-can design. Moreover, in 1999, close-quarters radio frequency communication hadn’t yet become widespread, so the headsets were all wired. Communication to the quarterback, however, relied on radio frequency. Coaches had assistants who followed them around to ensure the headset cord didn’t impede their movements and cause injuries.
In 2012, analog systems were phased out in favor of digital systems for increased reliability and clarity. Motorola ceased to be the official sponsor of coach headsets, prompting teams to purchase headsets from various manufacturers until a new contract was signed. The NFL wanted Bose to take over because they were renowned for their noise-canceling technology. The league considered this an advantage in large arenas teeming with screaming fans.
Bose Enters the Scene
Initially, Bose declined the opportunity due to engineering challenges. However, a group of Bose employees worked on the project as a side endeavor and eventually presented a proposal. In 2014, Bose signed a deal with the NFL to become the official sponsor of coach headsets.
Bose combined different technologies, adapting industrial aviation headsets for coaches. These headsets were customized according to each coach’s preferences, necessitating the adaptation of noise-canceling technology to single-can headsets. The microphones used in the headsets were derived from those used in military helmets worn by tank operators.
Therefore, the headsets you see coaches wearing from Bose are a blend of new technology, industrial aviation tech, and military tank warfare tech. These headsets feature noise-canceling capabilities even with just one can, and they are entirely digital and wireless.
But what about the frequency?
Controlling radio frequency was always a concern. In the early days, analog radio signals were local and infrequently used. However, ensuring that only the intended individuals listened in required a handshake deal between all the teams. Some frequencies overlapped with local radio stations, other radio equipment, and even entertainment services. Halftime shows often ran on the same frequencies, so everyone had to remember to turn off their headsets at the end of each quarter.
In 2016, the league secured an exclusive and encrypted frequency range, registered as a secret with the FCC. This range allows up to ten coaches per team to engage in private conversations via encrypted and secret radio frequencies.
Potential Expansion into Other Leagues
While there have been significant advancements in communication technology used in NFL football, there have been relatively few corresponding rule changes or modifications. Although the sponsor may change over time, the practice of directly communicating with quarterbacks through helmet speakers is likely here to stay.
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