This is an excerpt from 2021 & 2022 NIRSA Flag & Touch Football Rules Book & Officials' Manual-20th Edition by NIRSA.
Special Olympics Unified Flag Football – Collegiate Level Rules
Introduction to Unified Sports
The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community. Special Olympics is also dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. One of the more effective vehicles for promoting social inclusion is through Special Olympics Unified Sports®, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.
Special Olympics Unified Sports is an inclusive sports program that combines an approximately equal number of Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and Unified partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) on teams for training and competition. Unified Sports can be offered in team sports such as basketball, flag football, soccer, and volleyball and in other sports such as bocce, golf, and tennis. Successful Unified Sports programs include a number of criteria, including meaningful inclusion for athletes and Unified partners as well as appropriate sport selection.
In partnership with NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, hundreds of colleges are providing Unified Sports intramural leagues on campus. These leagues are inspired by a simple principle: training, playing, and competing together is a quick path to friendship, understanding, and meaningful inclusion. On these campuses, Unified Sports teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, making games more competitive, exciting, and fun for all. Unified Sports intramural leagues welcome Special Olympics athletes, whether students or from the community, and student Unified partners at any level of skill or experience.
In addition to Unified Sports intramural leagues, Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners also have the opportunity to participate in Unified Sports extramural events at the state, regional, and national levels through Special Olympics or the NIRSA Championship Series.
For more information or to learn how to bring Special Olympics Unified Sports intramural leagues to a campus, please visit www.specialolympics.org/our-work/unified-schools/college.
For more information on Special Olympics North America (SONA), please visit www.specialolympics.org/our-work/sports/unified-sports.
Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Rules
This section covers the differences between Special Olympics North America (SONA) and NIRSA flag football rules. SONA flag football rules are the prescribed rules of play for Unified Sports competitions taking place at NIRSA Championship Series flag football tournaments. To see full versions of SONA Unified Sports rules and resources, including flag football, please visit https://resources.specialolympics.org/sports-essentials/sports-and-coaching.
Special Olympics Unified flag football is intended to be noncontact. Rules are made with player safety as the primary consideration. Special Olympics athletes, Unified partners, and any nonplaying members of the team are to be held to the same standard as any other NIRSA competition and should not display unsportsmanlike conduct or act in a disrespectful manner to opponents, officials, and event staff.
One of the main principles of Special Olympics Unified Sports is the Principle of Meaningful Involvement. Meaningful involvement means that each player on the roster is afforded an opportunity to contribute, in both role and playing time, to their team and the outcome of the game in a way that highlights their own unique skill set. Since each player does have a unique skill set, meaningful involvement can be different for each individual player.
Unified Flag Football Rules Differences
These rule differences should be implemented for Unified Sports competitions in intramural play and at the NIRSA Championship Series flag football tournaments. Anything not listed in the SONA Unified Flag Football Rulebook should be played according to the NIRSA Flag and Touch Football Rules Book.
NOTE: It is recognized that some institutions may choose to modify some of the following rules (e.g., field dimensions or roster size) or incorporate any or all of the NIRSA flag football rules for their Unified divisions in order to facilitate play on their campus. If choosing to play predominately under NIRSA flag football rules, teams shall still be composed of both Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners with as close to a 1-to-1 ratio as possible.
Field Dimensions. SONA Unified flag football is played on a field with smaller dimensions than a standard NIRSA competition. The field is similar to a 4v4 field but with additional no-run zones and a width that is 5 yards smaller.
A. The field is 60 yards from end line to end line and 25 yards from sideline to sideline.
B. End zones are 10 yards in length, and there is a 20 yard distance from the goal line to midfield. During play, the two lines to gain will be the midfield line and the goal line.
C. There are no-run zones marked 5 yards before midfield and before the end zone. When the line of scrimmage is in a no-run zone (including exactly 5 yards before the line to gain), the plays must have a legal forward pass for the offensive team to gain yardage. Teams cannot advance the ball past the line of scrimmage while running, even if a legal handoff occurred. NOTE: The no-run zone is only enforced when the offensive team is within 5 yards of the line to gain.
- Team Composition. The teams on the playing field consist of 5 players, with a ratio of 3 athletes and 2 Unified partners. Teams must start a game with 3 athletes and 2 Unified partners. Teams can continue a game with 4 players. At no point can a team play with more Unified partners than athletes.
- Scoring. Touchdown: 6 points. Extra point: 1 or 2 points. Safety: 2 points. Extra point option: 1 point from the 6 yard line; 2 points from the 12 yard line.
- Overtime. If the score is tied at the end of regulation, a coin toss is used to determine first possession of overtime. Each team receives 2 plays from midfield, and the team with the most points scored or yardage gained wins the game. If the team with first possession scores a touchdown on their first play, then the opposing team must do the same on their first play. A team who intercepts a pass wins the game.
A. All possessions, except following an interception, start at the offensive team’s 5 yard line. After an interception, the ball changes possession and is placed at the point of the interception. (Interceptions cannot be returned.) An interception in the end zone is placed at the 5 yard line.
B. The offense has 4 plays to cross midfield; provided they cross midfield, they will be awarded another 4 plays to score a touchdown. If the offensive team fails to cross midfield or score a touchdown in the prescribed number of plays, possession of the ball changes, and the opposite team starts at their 5 yard line. There are no punts.
C. Dead balls: The play is dead and marked at the spot of the ball when the ball carrier loses their flag belt (even if the flag belt falls off inadvertently—there is no 1 hand touch), a receiver catches the ball without their flag belt on, or an interception occurs (blow the play dead immediately).
A. Running the ball: The quarterback is the first person gaining possession of the snap. The quarterback cannot advance the ball past the line of scrimmage as a runner at any time. Only direct handoffs are allowed behind the line of scrimmage. A player receiving a handoff can attempt a pass, as long as they are still behind the line of scrimmage during the attempted pass. A handoff can occur with any combination of athlete/Unified partner behind the line of scrimmage, with the player receiving the handoff eligible to advance the ball. Direct snaps are permitted; the quarterback does not have to be 2 yards back. Diving is not permitted to gain yardage.
B. Passing/receiving the ball: All passes, including shovel passes, must be forward and received beyond the line of scrimmage to be considered legal. A Unified partner cannot complete a pass to another Unified partner. Backward passes (laterals or pitches) are illegal regardless of field location.
- Defensive Considerations. All players who attempt to rush the quarterback must be a minimum of 7 yards from the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. A dot or marker is used to designate the 7 yard spot. (The 1 yard defensive line of scrimmage cone is not needed for Unified.) Players not rushing the quarterback may be on the line of scrimmage. The 7 yard zone no longer exists once the quarterback makes a handoff. Diving is not permitted to pull flag belts. Defensive players are not required to wear flag belts.
- Penalties. All penalties are assessed from the line of scrimmage. A penalty prior to the snap is 5 yards and replay the down. An offensive penalty after the snap is 5 yards and a loss of down. A defensive penalty after the snap is 5 yards and an automatic first down. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is 10 yards.