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This rule change to women's volleyball is causing a stir

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Women's volleyball will have a new set of rules for the 2024 season. This week, the NCAA implemented a series of rule changes, and one in particular is causing quite the stir. One touch or two - that is the question. Well, let's bring in Emily Ehman, a volleyball analyst for the Big Ten Network and ESPN - also, a former player. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY EHMAN: Hey, how's it going? Excited to get into this a little bit.

KELLY: Me too. And I want to - OK, so just help me understand this. In the past, players have only been able to touch the ball once before passing to a teammate, right? OK, explain what's changing.

EHMAN: Yeah, so that is the rule that they have now since gotten rid of. So that contact's normally referred to as a double contact, which normally happens when someone is setting the ball, meaning they're taking the ball over their head with two hands and pushing it out to another teammate. Historically, if that ball had too much spin on it - like, your hands weren't pushing it as one. Maybe you had one hand moving in a different way and the other hand going - the ball would have a little bit of spin on it, and in which case that would be ruled a fault. It was called a double contact, and the other side would get the point. So if you're setting the ball to a teammate, and maybe it comes off a little bit ugly, has a little bit of spin on it, that's OK as long as the ball stays on your side of the net.

KELLY: I'm dredging up memories from my volleyball glory days, which is high school gym class from (laughter) circa 1990. I mean, I don't remember anything about the rules, but this is the one thing I remember - is you could only touch it once. This was set in stone. Why change it?

EHMAN: Yes. I think one of the biggest reasons was to provide a little bit more consistency throughout the game, and then it promotes continuation of play, which, obviously, is more entertaining for players and fans.

KELLY: To - you would rather watch them play than not play. Absolutely.

EHMAN: Exactly. Let the girls play.

KELLY: Let the girls play. But I mentioned this is causing a huge stir. What has been the reaction among players, among coaches?

EHMAN: It's been really interesting to see because people seem really split about this. Even some coaches that were former setters said, yes, this is a great rule. You know, it's not going to change the game. It's not going to change the art or the way that setters set. There's also some coaches and, of course, players and fans that feel like it takes away the art of setting. And it's really, really difficult to set the ball as clean as possible, have no spin. And they learn that from a really young age, so some feel like this might be a way that's taking away the grace and beauty that is setting.

KELLY: Am I right in thinking this rule change will only apply to the women's game? Why?

EHMAN: It's an interesting point because it's actually been loosened up in the men's game. They've already not necessarily gotten rid of it, but they've been really loose on the calls compared to the women's game over the last few years, especially.

KELLY: Last thing - as I was reading in to talk to you, I noticed a record that fell - women's volleyball breaking a sports attendance record. This was last season.

EHMAN: Yes.

KELLY: More than 92,000 fans at a game. That's a lot of fans. And I wonder if you would just situate this moment in terms of excitement around the game and whether it feels like maybe we're on the cusp of a different era for the sport.

EHMAN: It feels like we're absolutely on the cusp of a different era for volleyball and really women's sports in general. I mean, to pack 92,000 fans in a football stadium to watch a volleyball match is incredible. Every single season, we've seen viewership records get shattered. We've seen attendance records get shattered. And more people want in on it. This sport is exploding.

KELLY: All right, I'm excited. Here's to two touches (laughter). Here's to some great...

EHMAN: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Volleyball coming up. Thanks so much for talking to us.

EHMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: That's Emily Ehman, volleyball analyst for the Big Ten Network and ESPN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.