Last week, the NCAA’s football rules committee suggested increasing the penalty for targeting a defenseless player from a personal foul to a mandatory ejection. The intent of the rule, promoting player safety by eradicating head shots, is laudable. But implementing it in an effective manner may prove difficult.
Football, for either humane or liability reasons, must change. Eliminating the worst of collisions, caused by players aiming high and dropping their helmet to deploy it as a weapon, is both feasible and necessary. The NFL has had some success. College football faces a far more difficult challenge.
The NFL can modify behavior with fines. College football does not pay the labor force. The NFL has well-trained, professional players who can adjust themselves. In college football the impetus for change must come from the coaches. An occasionally called 15-yard penalty does not appear to inspire coaches to act.
Coaches don’t want star defenders ejected. The penalty, in a perfect world, would incite coaches to teach proper tackling to avoid that prospect. College football refereeing is not perfect.
College referees aren’t great. There’s a quality drop off from the NFL. There’s a much larger group of officials. There is no centralized body to enforce discipline. The rule will exist on paper. As with the present iteration there will be substantial variance on how and how often targeting is called.
Targeting itself is also a tough penalty to call. It’s most often a judgement all. Did the player aim high? Did the runner or receiver lower into contact? This can be impossible to tell in real time and debatable on tape.
Increasing the penalty ratchets up the pressure on referees to make the proper call and the costs for not doing so. As with fouls in the penalty area in soccer, the enhanced penalties may make referees more reticent to call the penalty. That would make players less safe.
Mandatory ejections for targeting sound great, but a probable outcome would be more confusion, more controversy and a chilling effect on enforcement.
No solution is perfect. The most reasonable might be to have a sober party review the evidence and levy suspensions after the game. That notion, however, returns us to college football’s decentralized authority. The “sober party” would have to be conferences. Can we really trust the SEC or the Big Ten to suspend a key player for a controversial hit when it might be detrimental to the conference’s own self-interest?
This would be an ideal situation for a national collegiate body to take charge. Alas, the NCAA remains a vacant window-dressing, concerned only with keeping its basketball tournament tax-exempt and developing progressively archaic and invasive marijuana testing.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]