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The Good And Bad Of Proposed Football Rule Changes

gfx - honest opinionYesterday, the NCAA Football Rules Committee decided to get tough against above-the-shoulder hits on defenseless players.  In a unanimous vote, the committee chose to increase the penalty for “targeting” to make it a 15-yard penalty with an automatic ejection of the offending player.

On March 6th, this proposal will be given a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong the rules committee’s decision.  Most sane people want players to be protected as best as possible.  And while a big hit might make the ancient Roman in all of us cheer, the idea of seeing a player carted off the field upsets the stomachs of most rationale fans.  This writer was in Ohio Stadium in 2000 when Adam Taliaferro was dealt a career-ending spinal cord injury.  Thankfully, after months of rehab, Taliaferro began to walk again.  Waiting for the emergency responders to slowly clear a motionless player from the field is something that tends to stick with you.

So if the NCAA wants to protect players, fine.  Unfortunately, the way they’re going about it will only give on-field officials’ yet another judgement call that they do not want.

A better solution would be to shelve the ejection part of the penalty and instead better define what is and what isn’t an illegal hit.  That way coaches could better teach their players what not to do during games.  (At least the NCAA has proposed a video review take place before a player is actually booted from a game.)

Take, for example, the helmet-to-helmet hit.  Currently, if a defensive back’s helmet collides with a defenseless receiver’s helmet it’s supposed to be a penalty.  But officials often are left to debate whether or not the receiver turned his head into the defender, whether the blow was direct or glancing, whether the defender used the crown of his helmet, etc.  Scrap all that.  Just outlaw all above-the-shoulders hits on defenseless players.  After all, if a player leads with his helmet it’s a dangerous act whether the receiver happens to turn his head one way or another.  So teach players not to launch themselves into above-the-shoulder hits.

The NCAA also needs to do a better job of explaining just what constitutes a defenseless player.  Typically, it’s receivers and returners in the act of catching a pass or punt.  If that’s the limit, define it as such.  If a quarterback looking the wrong way after an interception is always to be considered a defenseless player, add that to the definition.

Trying to protect players — even if it takes away one or two excitingly violent hits per game — is the right thing to do.  But better defining an illegal hit and a defenseless player would make things easier on players, coaches, and officials.  Adding the possibility of ejection into the mix just muddies the water.  The NCAA should focus more on the act before increasing the punishment.

This was not, however, the only rule change proposed by the rules committee and awaiting approval by the oversight panel.  The other suggested changes are:

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