The more we know about concussions, the worse it looks for football’s future. Humaneness (we hope) and the threat of existential lawsuits have spurred action from both the NFL and College Football. One response has been an attempt to reduce the hits that create the most risk of head injuries, by penalizing targeting. The intent may be noble. But the implementation has been messy and controversial.
Football will not be “safe.” The point is to make it “safer” or “safe enough.” The NFL and College Football believe they can do that by (a) eliminating hits above the shoulders and (b) getting players to “see what they hit” by keeping their head up and to the side. The intent, as Merton Hanks told us on our visit to the NFL offices, is to enact a “culture change.” More “tackling.” Fewer safeties at full steam going high and head first to jar a receiver.
The problem with enforcing the targeting rule is almost every incident is debatable. Intent has to be thrown out, as there is no way to prove it one way or the other. Slow motion only distorts things, by making everything look worse. Almost every decision is a judgement call. Even a review referee in the booth with an awesome TV monitor adds little conclusive force. The debate only intensifies in college where refereeing standards and level of competence can vary.
Controversies are mitigated when targeting is a mere 15-yard penalty, which rarely affects the game. That’s precisely why that penalty is not enough of a deterrent to force change. The NFL increases the deterrent by fining players. College Football can’t replicate that since it does not pay players.
To increase the deterrent, college football had two real options, suspensions after the fact or ejections. Suspensions are troublesome, because there is no centralized, unbiased body to levy them. Can you trust a conference to knock out a key defensive starter for a team headed to the national title game? It’s also something less tangible that, in certain situations, you might be willing to risk.
Ejections are also troublesome. An ejection is final. It can affect the outcome of a game. Because of that, it is like a penalty in the box in soccer. Refs would be more hesitant to call it. There would be a greater tolerated threshold, defeating the purpose of instituting the ejections. College Football counteracted this tendency, by ordering referees to call it in borderline cases.
This is a change. Change, as it normally does, incites fear, especially in the reactionary bastion that is football.
Slippery slope scenarios are running rampant. Some fear games will descend into a stream of 15-yard penalties will be thrown out like candy. Some prominent coaches insist they may lose too many players to field a defense on the road.
A rallying point for detractors has been Jadeveon Clowney’s infamous hit on Vincent Smith. The ACC’s officiating supervisor said he would have ejected Clowney for the hit. Mike Periera agreed that, under the new interpretation of the rules, Clowney would have been thrown out. The hit is a classic “debatable” case.
Clowney ended up hitting Smith right at the borderline of being too high. Though it’s not clear how, given Smith being listed at 5’6,” Clowney could have avoided that. What’s clearer is that Clowney did “lower the boom” by looking down and leading with the crown of his helmet.
Under the old interpretation, it was not a penalty. Under the new interpretation, it’s a penalty. He gets ejected. Michigan probably wins the Outback Bowl. In 2013, maybe Clowney leads with his shoulder and isn’t quite as GIF-worthy.
There will be controversial targeting decisions. The number should diminish as teams adjust and consider safer methods of tackling than high speed head collisions. That is possible. It must happen. Whether that makes College Football a more desirable product is moot. Football can’t go backward on concussions. It has to get safer to survive.
Draconian enforcement of targeting calls to provide more deterrence is a relatively minor tweak. That is the compromise method. If this, combined with improved equipment and more enlightened treatment of injuries in coming years, does not work, the changes to come will be far more comprehensive and catastrophic. Football will resemble “flag football” in more than just rhetoric. Insurance costs may make it untenable for colleges to play it.