Ejecting Players for Targeting Will Likely Create More Problems Than It Solves

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Ejecting Players for Targeting Will Likely Create More Problems Than It Solves
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The NCAA’s intentions to improve player safety are, of course, 100 percent correct. The implementation of the latest legislation, however, feels both flawed and slightly misguided.

Less than 24 hours after a disturbing study on brain injuries in college football surfaced, the Playing Rules Oversight Panel officially made “targeting” an ejectable offense starting in 2013. This proposed change went public last month, although it’s now official.

Targeting, by NCAA definition is “taking aim at an opponent with an apparent intent that goes beyond making a good football play.” 

All hits “above the shoulders” will now be reviewable, and players will suffer the consequences immediately rather than the following week. This postgame review will still remain a part of the process.

This courtesy of NCAA.org:

The new rule in football means that discipline for those players flagged for violations will mirror the penalty for fighting. If the foul occurs in the first half of a game, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game. If the foul occurs in the second half or overtime of a game, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next contest.

In an effort to address concerns when one of these plays is erroneously called on the field, the ejection portion of the penalty will be reviewable through video replay. The replay official must have conclusive evidence that a player should not be ejected to overturn the call on the field. 

Additionally, a postgame conference review remains part of the rule, and conferences retain their ability to add to a sanction. The committee will also allow a postgame review to reduce a suspension if warranted.

There are many concerns regarding the potential impact and implementation of this rule, but the intent cannot be argued.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

These are terrifying times for football at all skill levels. The research and findings on potential long-term brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) could impact the future of the sport at all levels. The more we learn, the more disturbing the details become. With more time, effort and resources being invested into studying the brain and football’s impact on it, these issues will only be magnified.

So when it comes to player safety, it’s nearly impossible to argue against a rule where the intent is to better serve the parties involved. I commend them for taking steps. The fact that the NCAA is trying to protect its players is admirable, and the expedited passing of such legislation shows the level of concern.

But while I admire the NCAA being proactive on a variety of levels, this particular rule will likely create controversial scenarios while not accomplishing the desired goal.

The problem with this ruling in general—and I do support the postgame review and possible suspension, which went live last season—is the grey area when it comes to targeting and also the soon-to-be necessity for a prompt response.

Why rush it? What do you accomplish? And are we confident enough with the definition, officials and replay process to feel comfortable heading into next season?

Take this hit from Ole Miss defensive back Trae Elston on UTEP wideout Jordan Leslie last season. The contact was certainly high, although far from the devastating missile launch we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from safeties in recent years.

Still, this earned Elston a one-game suspension from the SEC following the game. (Oh, and don’t mind the Jaws theme music.)

At the time, I didn’t think a one-game suspension was appropriate. By rule, however, you can see why it was dispensed. While there wasn’t that same jarring, cringe-inducing helmet-on-helmet contact, it still is targeting by the book. Your stomach also drops when you see a player hit the ground like this, just hoping he'll pop back up.

When he doesn't, you fear the worst, and his reaction likely impacts whether or not a flag is thrown. I certainly don't blame the refs for this.

It’s a difficult call and ruling to make, even with ample hours to watch the hit repeatedly. Now, imagine having to make this call under the gun, with a ravenous crowd anxiously awaiting a thumbs up or thumbs down on an ejection.

This puts officials in a difficult situation. Although a 15-yard penalty brought about plenty of debate, removing a player—a potentially game-changing ruling—will up the ante and their responsibilities.

After watching some of the officiating the past few seasons, I can’t say I’m thrilled that they will have more power and control over the game. And while the hits can be reviewed and overturned, I don’t have overwhelming confidence in the replay booth, either.

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There’s another aspect of this as well, a notion that instant punishment will somehow deter players from launching themselves. The NCAA believes that an immediate ejection is the next step to preventing these types of hits.

Will a safety traveling at incredible speeds think about the possibility of an immediate ejection as he lines up a wideout running a skinny post? Perhaps, although I can’t see this having any more impact than the one-game suspension already in place.

Increasing the duration of the punishment seems a logical next step if the NCAA feels like one is necessary.

The problem, however, is there is no easy answer, no solution that will remove these terrifying hits altogether. Although the meat-headed responses of "Just let them play!" or "It's becoming touch football!" are still prevalent, this is a dwindling stance at a time when players need as much protection as possible.

I admire that the NCAA is taking steps it feels will help lessen these moments, although I worry about the process and I'm very worried about the execution.

As for the officials tasked to make these calls and pass along rulings—say at an SEC stadium on a warm Saturday night in September, when a home player was just given the boot—good luck. 

And may I suggest packing a disguise or two just in case.

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