It’s not hyperbole to suggest that no issue threatens college football’s long-term viability – not conference expansion, or the oft-rumored breakaway of the Power Five, or even shifting spectator demographics – more than that of player safety. And well it should, as society is cognizant, in a manner it wasn’t even a scant five years ago, of the lifelong emotional and behavioral issues that can result from repeated trauma to the brain (even the low-impact kind). Reflective, thoughtful college football administrators, industry types, and fans alike should be keenly aware of the possible lifelong effects on the amateur athletes that suit up for our favorite teams every Saturday, and implore the sport’s governing authority to take every available preventative measure to ensure that football is played as safely as possible.
It is against this backdrop, then, that this past Spring’s expanded clarification of the NCAA’s existing targeting rule seemed such a laudable accomplishment. In March, the NCAA Football Rules Oversight Panel approved a new rule aimed at further regulating the launching, helmet-to-helmet tackles that the targeting penalty seeks to dissuade. Specifically, for the first time this new rule vested instant replay officials with more potential oversight for player safety, providing them the ability to stop a play and call a targeting penalty that the referee on the field may have missed. Further, the new rule mandated that a replay official inspect every angle of an on-field targeting call, in an effort to make certain that the foul was properly enforced. For both player safety champions and erroneously ejected players, the NCAA seemed to deserve a gold star: they had added layers of protection for both the tackler and the tacklee in one fell swoop. As always, however, the devil is in the details.
The NCAA cognoscenti should have been doing cartwheels throughout the halls of its Indianapolis headquarters, therefore, when the ideal opportunity for the initial application of its new expanded targeting rule occurred under the brightest of spotlights: in the season’s very first weekend, during the sole Sunday game. At a crucial moment late in the third quarter of the Notre Dame-Texas game, Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. was the recipient of some particularly brutal helmet (and shoulder)-to-helmet contact delivered by Texas safety DeShon Elliot. In addition to jarring the ball loose and preventing a Notre Dame touchdown, the hit resulted in Hunter having to exit the game.
Hunter would suffer a concussion on this play, resulting in him sitting out this past weekend’s game, and Elliot would later publicly apologize for celebrating the hit in the immediate aftermath. Despite multiple officials being in close proximity and presumably witnessing the obvious helmet-to-helmet contact first-hand, no flag for targeting was thrown. With a record-breaking TV audience watching, two of the sport’s highest-profile programs engaged in a back-and forth affair that was the only show in town that evening, and a previously defenseless player lying motionless under the Austin lights while the ABC cameras zoomed in on the trickle of blood meandering down his forehead, the stage was set: the booth replay officials, using their newly-conferred authority courtesy of the NCAA, would right the heat-of-the-moment wrong that the field officials missed. The millions of college football players, administrators, and fans watching at home would applaud this brave new approach to player safety, the deterrent effect of the penalty would be acknowledged, and the NCAA would be afforded the opportunity to point to even more evidence of its proactive approach and commitment to player safety.
Except that’s precisely what did not happen. No formal stoppage of play and accompanying review by the replay booth officials took place, despite the not-insignificant amount of time that occurred as the camera lingered on Hunter’s supine form and a cadre of medical support staff huddled over him. Once Hunter was carted off the field, and his anxious family escorted into the locker room, the game resumed. Later that week, Walt Anderson, the Big 12’s supervisor of officials, would state that the replay officials did not believe the hit rose to the level of applying a formal call from the booth, explaining in a statement that “The play was reviewed and replay did not feel the action warranted an egregious foul, which is the standard to be applied for replay involvement in targeting fouls that are not called on the field.” Rogers Redding, the secretary-rules editor of the Football Rules Committee, agreed in part and dissented in part, stating that the intent of the rule change is to call targeting from the replay booth only in the instance of “clear and obvious” missed calls by the on-field officiating crew, when “it’s something that just 100 percent absolutely should have been called. You might have a targeting foul and have a little question about it, then they’re gonna stay out of it.” Redding distanced himself from Anderson’s position somewhat, however, mentioning that this instance had been the ideal time to deploy the new rule, stating “I think the replay official should have stopped the game to review the play. The new rule has not been used at all yet.”
With appropriate respect to both Anderson and Redding’s points of view, if the contact to Hunter’s head wasn’t clear, obvious, and egregious enough to those officials watching in the booth so as to warrant review, then what kind of contact, exactly, will ever rise to that level? Is it going to take an on-field fatality brought about by an epidural hematoma? And that, therefore, is the crux of this entire matter: when you supplement a highly-subjective and poorly understood rule (like the targeting one) with an even higher degree of subjectivity, what have you really accomplished, vis-à-vis improving player safety (other than some public pats on the back for purportedly taking the issue seriously)? Consider, for a moment, what this rule, as currently configured, requires at a logistical level. It requires one group of officials to not only publicly overturn or overrule their colleagues, but to take that affirmative action in the face of their bosses giving public statements that imply that this newly-delegated power should be used sparingly, if at all. Human nature being what it is, that’s not an effectively conferred police power, and that’s without even accounting for the universally-repeated maxim that officials are loathe to criticize or second-guess the calls of their brethren. For critics of the NCAA that say the organization is concerned more about the appearance of protecting its student-athletes than their actual safety, this current iteration of this expansion to the targeting rule (well-intentioned or not) appears to offer little in the way of rebuttal.
What is particularly frustrating about this misstep is that the solution seems simple, and glaringly obvious: remove the subjective component entirely. Instead of allowing merely for the possibility that replay officials can now stop games and assess targeting fouls that were not called on the field in “clear and egregious” situations, make it both compulsory and commonplace. Require that any time a player needs on-field medical attention after anything resembling contact to the head, the reply booth will undertake a formal targeting review. In effect, change the “can” in the new rule to “will.” As part of this de novo review, it will be immaterial whether a flag was initially thrown or not, and the booth officials will now have a clearly-defined responsibility to monitor this realm of the game. This simple, one-word revision will accomplish two immediate objectives: first, it will remove any subjective reticence on the part of the replay officials to interject themselves, and second, it will appropriately carve out a new review standard for targeting-based offenses. Both these objectives further what should be the NCAA’s top priority: deterrence of potentially dangerous head injuries and overall player safety. While I agree with the “indisputable video evidence” standard of review that is applied in all other replay scenarios, given the constructive notice we all now possess regarding the potential for brain injuries, the issue of player safety demands a higher level of both scrutiny and responsibility.
In announcing this expanded targeting rule this past March, Bob Nielson, the chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, stated, “The targeting rule is serving the game well, and has enhanced player safety. Because this is such a severe penalty, we are instructing replay officials to review plays to ensure that the required elements of targeting exist. We are also adding the ability for the replay official to stop the game when a potential targeting foul is not detected on the field.” If the NCAA wants to demonstrate an enhanced commitment to player safety and promote deterrence of the head (and other body part)-to-head collisions that can threaten the future of the sport and the long-term health of its student-athletes, it should reevaluate this new rule immediately. Supplementing the new rule with an affirmative duty on the part of replay officials to formally review any play involving a potential head injury provides the simplest avenue to ensure that this rule is more concerned with effecting long-term change and a safer playing environment, rather than merely the appearances thereof.