The NCAA's new targeting rule is either going to save football or ruin it entirely. The right answer may depend on which fans you ask.
With seconds remaining in the third quarter of Auburn's blowout victory over Arkansas State on September 7, Tigers linebacker Kris Frost was flagged with a roughing-the-passer penalty and ejected. Frost did not go helmet-to-helmet, but he did leave his feet to hit quarterback Adam Kennedy up high, a violation that falls under the new "targeting" rules this year.
The fans booed the flag and the ejection. (To be fair, it's hard to know entirely if the Auburn fans were booing the call or Frost's stupidity.) The penalty was dumb, but the hit was innocuous at best. Frost was kicked out of the game and, since the penalty took place in the second half, will miss the first half of Auburn's SEC opener against Mississippi State next week.
Frost's ejection was one of more than 10 punishments for targeting to be given out over the first two weeks of the college football season—admittedly, that number did decrease over the second weekend of the season after a rash of calls in Week 1.
Were the players smarter, or are the referees handling the rule more judiciously? Can it be both?
It probably can't be both. There is very little wiggle room in the new targeting rule, which was a prudent decision for the NCAA by removing the interpretation of intent from the referee's decision, but bad for the NCAA in that hits that should in no way warrant a suspension are knocking players out of multiple games.
While Steven Taylor of Houston's ridiculous helmet-to-helmet hit on Temple quarterback Connor Reilly was a clear violation of the targeting rule, Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson's questionable ejection after hitting Toledo receiver Bernard Reedy high as he was landing from a reception attempt (seen below) is a difficult and potentially unfair interpretation of the rule that wasn't supposed to have any room for interpretation.
And yet, the root of the rule change is a system-wide effort to make the game safer. That's entirely commendable—a word not often associated with the NCAA—and the powers that be deserve credit for this change.
At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex situation, the rule could literally save someone's life. But by ejecting players for hits that may not have even drawn a flag in years past, championships can be decided by the interpretation of a referee to the letter of a law that shouldn't have any room for interpretation.
The NCAA was smart to allow referees to review hits that may warrant an ejection—for games without replay, a committee can review the plays after a game and rescind the remainder of a player's suspension should it carry into a second game—but the process of reviewing a hit was solely put in place to verify that contact was made (and snuff out potential floppers trying to draw an erroneous penalty).
Intent is not part of the equation when deciding if a player should be ejected. The penalty is now the same for fighting, but—unlike fighting—intent is being kept out of each ruling.
So we boo, because it hurts our teams. We boo, because unless a player on our team actively went after an opponent with the intent to injure him, any contact was incidental at best, and at worst, a horrible lapse in football discipline.
Should a 15-yard penalty be enough of a punishment for a mistake? In most cases, honestly, it should.
That does, however, lead to a Hammurabi-ish view of rule enforcement: What happens when a player gets hurt? Should injury be a delineating factor for ejection? What, then, would stop players from acting hurt just so a player gets sent off?
(Note: As a soccer fan, this practice is infuriating, as players often feign injury to exacerbate a foul call to the point of booking the offender with a yellow-card caution or red-card ejection.)
The college football targeting rule is incredibly noble coming from a conference room in Indianapolis (or wherever NCAA rules are created), but on the hundreds of fields around college football, it feels like those charged with trying to clean up the game are bringing an atom bomb to a game of laser tag.
Let's look back at the Missouri ejection for a moment. Head coach Gary Pinkel was saying all the right things after the game—which will go a long way in helping to eliminate all high hits from the sport. From Matthew Fairburn of the Missourian (subscription required):
“Bottom line is you can’t hit above the shoulders,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “You can’t hit near the shoulder line, you can’t do it. He’s on my team. He’s a great kid. He would never try to hurt anybody, but we have to protect the game. We’ve got to protect kids.”
Still, the call had to be incredibly frustrating for the coach and his team.
Let's look at the play from both sides, without bias or a deep-rooted interest.
On one hand, Wilson reached up and struck a player above the shoulder pads while the receiver was trying to land after attempting to make a catch. It's a clear-cut "defenseless receiver" situation. The personal foul is obvious.
On the other hand, with an ejection automatically accompanying the personal foul, it may be time to reevaluate the concept of a defenseless receiver. Does the rule punish the defense too much?
Someone could look at that same play as a linebacker simply bracing himself while in position in a zone defense when the ball is thrown to a receiver coming straight for him.
Wilson's job in that situation is to dislodge the ball or, failing that, tackle the player after the catch. Without leaving his feet, Wilson merely turned, took a step and raised his hands in an attempt to engage the receiver who, again, was coming right for him. The contact forced the receiver to drop the potential reception.
When viewed that way, it was a good football play.
Wilson attempted to dislodge the ball, but he didn't launch himself nor lead with his helmet, instead leading with his hands.
In today's game, this warrants an ejection.
The game is safer, and yet it's understandable why some fans boo.
That reaction cannot be what the NCAA wants, so the rule is not only going to have to reprogram players to tackle differently than they've been taught their entire lives, but it's going to have to reprogram the fans to realize they are watching a completely different game that is only going to become more different year after year.
We have been programmed to cheer the big hits, so when those big hits suddenly get our top players kicked out of the game, our natural reaction is to boo—not to sit back and pontificate about how much damage all those hits we've seen over the years have done to the players taking the wallop (and those giving them).
Until football authorities can figure out a helmet that will completely eliminate any potential trauma to the brain (hint: that will never happen), football will always be one big hit away from ruining someone's life.
The powers that run amateur sports have to find a way to take the violence out of the game, even if that makes the game completely and utterly unrecognizable to what we've come to know as modern American football.
And yet, would that be so bad? What if players were penalized not only for leading with the helmet or targeting above the shoulders on a tackle, but making contact with an opponent with their pads or helmet at all?
What if it was a 15-yard penalty on the offense whenever a running back lowers his head to engage contact?
How many helmet-to-helmet hits in football happen because the offensive player lowers his head to protect the ball? What if that became a penalty, too?
What if the only way you could tackle a player was by using your arms? Would it still be football? Would it still be fun to watch? The offensive numbers would increase as players would be able to break more arm tackles while avoiding devastating hits.
Big hits would be replaced by big runs. The game would be safer; the game would be higher-scoring. But would it still be football?
In a few years, it might be a reality, and it might be the only football we have left. Boo all you want, but that's probably not a bad thing in the long run. Right now, though, it's terribly confusing for fans.