New Neutral Danger Zone Rule Changes Everything

November 02, 2017 | The Ref on The Open Mat

New Neutral Danger Zone Rule

Jason Nolf, Gabe Dean

Photos by Tony Rotundo,

If you’ve read my past articles you’ll know that I’m a wrestling fan first. So when I first read the following I thought it was a little ridiculous. Below is what I read:

Neutral Danger Zone Takedown. When in the neutral position, the referee shall announce a neutral danger signal (NDS) anytime a wrestler exposes their shoulders to the mat at any angle less than 90 degrees (neutral danger zone). The danger zone utilizes near fall criteria outlined in Rule 4.5.1, but replaces 45 degrees with any angle less than 90 degrees. The NDS announcement shall occur anytime a wrestler is voluntarily or involuntarily in the neutral danger zone, beyond reaction time, and will continue until the wrestler is out of the danger zone or a takedown is awarded.

That, of course, is the new Neutral Danger Zone takedown rule.

Pretty vague, right? As an official, if you read the rule blindly, it’s pretty cut and dry. If any athlete exposes their back less than 90 – they’re in the “danger zone”. Therefore I, the official, should give the neutral danger signal and start counting. I get to a three-count – two points for the other guy. Well, believe it or not, it’s sort of that cut and dry but to give you some insight I need to give you a bit of background first.

The NCAA uses a website to disseminate information to all NCAA registered coaches and officials. It’s where any official goes to take their yearly test, pay their dues, log in their schedule and where many schools/conferences assign matches. It’s not a terrible website, it works. I guess the key thing is it’s available to any official or coach who wants to see anything regarding the rules. Heck, I can even download the app and have all the rules and updates literally at my fingertips.

I say that because when the NCAA comes out with a new rule, especially one that changes what the athletes are doing inside the circle, it’s always followed up with numerous clarifications. I, as an official (not sure about the coaches) also have the opportunity to ask the powers that be any question regarding any rule and the powers always respond. They also not only respond to question(s) directly but (I think) all questions and answers are posted on the website for all to see.

That said; let me “sum up” how the rule has been clarified.

  1. If both wrestlers’ backs are exposed less than 90 simultaneously there is no count.
  2. If one wrestler’s back is exposed less than 90, there’s a count.

After all the questions, videos and clarifications, that seems to be what it has come down too.

My opinion: It’s going to suck for officials until things settle – but it’s the absolute right thing for the sport.

Here’s why. I literally would have doubled my earnings last year from officiating if I had a dollar for every stalemate I called with one kid flat on his back in an “uncontrolled” situation. I also think we can all remember an instance or two from last year where one athlete was in absolute control but under the rules could not be awarded a takedown.

Keep in mind too, this is an NCAA rule. I think it’s important to state because when people think of these rule changes they think of the wrestling they see on the Big Ten, ACC, or Big 12 networks and not all the other matches not shown on those outlets. You’ll have to trust me on this as being one that has officiated the athletes on those networks along with numerous Division II and III duals and tournaments, wrestlers on their backs was an issue throughout the sport entirely. I’m glad the NCAA made the change.

It’s just going to suck to call it – or maybe not. You see, this is my second go around at this article as I initially wrote another version before even calling the rule. I knew I had some work coming up (preseason wrestle-offs at a couple Division 1 schools) so I decided to hold off until after I was actually on the mat.

In total, I officiated about 25-30 matches and called one (1) neutral danger zone takedown. I expected teammates to end up in these “controlled, uncontrolled” scrambles more than most due to familiarity. BUT………Yet again, the athletes adjusted, as they always do. It was almost comical to see these kids fight to avoid going to their back in a neutral position.

I’ll say this though. In my opinion, where this rule is going to change things the most is conditioning. Much like how the neutral out of bounds rules benefitted the better-conditioned athlete, this rule will do the same. There were times over the past couple years it was obvious an athlete would work for a situation to rest or work for a stalemate. Not anymore. That was evident during the wrestle-offs I did. I guess it’s one of those “unintended” consequences of the rule. No more being tired and hanging on the leg waiting for the ref to call a stalemate.

It’s a game changer, no doubt but a good one in my opinion.

A couple other things on the rule:

1. If you’re an NCAA coach – you should log-on and watch the video and read the Q&A’s. I asked all three Division 1 coaches I went to for wrestle-offs if they watched the video/read the Q&A’s. All three had the same answer – No

2. It’s going to hurt getting newer officials. Most NCAA officials, me included, come from the high school level. I know a couple good high school guys that would have been good NCAA officials who won’t even consider it now. With the drop-down count, neutral out of bounds, neutral danger zone takedown, the rules are a lot different between high school and college. I truly hope these new changes don’t discourage too many refs from the high school ranks from making the jump.

3. If I award the neutral danger zone takedown, one athlete is in control, without question. Think about it. If your back is exposed at 90 I, the official, allow you reaction time, I then give the verbal danger signal “danger”, then start my three count. That’s going to come out to about 5/6 seconds in total. If an athlete can’t break 90 for a continuous 5 seconds, the other athlete is controlling them.

Two other things:

1. Thank you, NCAA, for making the 30-minute rule between matches mandatory. Kids were putting themselves through too much – especially at open tournaments.

2. Has anyone even noticed an athlete can select neutral in the ride outs now? (Editor’s Note: We did!) I think that’s going to change the outcome of more matches than the Neutral Danger Zone Takedown.

Should be a fun season!