Question: Can football be made less violent and safer without changing the nature of the game?
Answer: It’s already happening.
Don’t take it from me. Listen to Steve Shaw, coordinator of officials for the SEC and NCAA secretary-rules editor for football.
“The targeting rule is working,” Shaw said Wednesday in a telephone interview from the SEC’s Birmingham office. “In fact, it is working very well. I think if you watch football closely, you have seen player behavior change over the past few seasons. I know I have. There are fewer purposeful helmet-to-helmet hits.”
That’s as it should be. We now know the damage such repetitive helmet-to-helmet blows can have later in a football player’s life in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And if you don’t know about it, you can read about three tragic instances here:
Through the first three weeks of the SEC football season, there have been five instances of targeting called. All five were reviewed, by rule. And all five were confirmed by the replay booth. In fact, two of the five were initiated from the booth.
Two of the calls were made in Mississippi State’s 37-7 victory over LSU Saturday night in Starkville. Both linebacker Donnie Alexander and defensive end Neil Farrell, rushing State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald at different times, hit him helmet-to-helmet. As a result, LSU was penalized 15 yards both times and both Alexander and Farrell were ejected from the game. Furthermore, both LSU players must sit out the first half of LSU’s game with Syracuse this week.
Steep penalties, you say?
Something had to be done to get players’ and coaches’ attention. The targeting penalty increasingly has.
The two hits we saw in the third quarter of the LSU-State game, we used to see several times a game before the advent of the “targeting” rule in 2013 in NCAA football. In fact, the two calls against the LSU players didn’t nearly rise to the level of violent hits we used to see on quarterbacks every Saturday in college football and every Sunday in the NFL.
“It’s better,” Shaw said. “It’s not where we want it to be, but it’s better and I hope it will continue to get better. Pass rushers just have to stay away from the quarterback’s head and neck area. Increasingly, they are.”
Shaw sees even more improvement at the other end of a passing play in college football. Without question, the most violent helmet-to-helmet football blows often come when a speeding pass defender crashes into a speeding pass receiver, usually in the middle of the field.
Says Shaw, “It used to be almost like a calling card. A receiver who runs a route across the field would invariably get blind-sided, often helmet-to-helmet and never see it coming. It was as if the defensive back was leaving a calling card. If you watch football closely, you will see a lot of defensive backs backing off those kinds of hits. That’s the intent of the rule. It’s working. Players are being educated and avoiding those kind of hits.”
The penalty and dismissal from the game are deterrents. Hopefully, players also are beginning to realize they have a long-term stake in all this – that is, their future health.
“We’ve still got work to do,” Shaw said. “In my opinion, we still see too many blind-side blocks, particularly on change-of-possession plays. Those kind of hits, when a player is really defenseless, are particularly dangerous.”
Interesting, to this observer, has been fans’ and even media’s responses to these “targeting” calls. I can’t tell you how many times over the past four seasons, I’ve heard complaints in press boxes, living rooms and sports taverns about “how the zebras are ruining the great sport of football.”
I heard them last Saturday night. “This isn’t ballet. This is the SEC! They are ruining this sport,” one wag exclaimed.
My opinion: They aren’t ruining it. They are trying to save it. Knowing what we now know about the long- and short-term danger of helmet to helmet blows, something had to give.
And, in this case, I applaud LSU coach Ed Orgeron for his post-game reaction. He did not criticize the officials. No, he went after his players, saying that they know better and have been taught better. He vowed to bench players who continue to break the targeting rule. And from Baton Rouge we have heard news this week that both players have apologized to their teammates for those hits.
Six years ago, they would have been applauded. Now they are apologizing.