Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How To Make a Problem Worse

Look, everyone agrees that football needs to do something about the head injuries.

But I think that pretty soon, everyone is going to agree that the NCAA's new "targeting" rule is a complete disaster.

The first weekend of the college season brought a number of penalties for violation of the new rule, put in place this season in an attempt to make the game safer. In the NCAA's own language, the rule "requires that players who target and contact defenseless opponents above the shoulders will be ejected. The change increases the on-field penalty for targeting by adding the automatic ejection to the existing 15-yard penalty."

That automatic ejection sounds like a swell idea. After all, if you really want to take the headhunting out of the game, it stands to reason that you should get the headhunters out of the game, right?

Not so fast. The clumsy implementation of the rule includes a requirement that the ejection portion of the penalty be reviewed by a video-replay official  (there's no overturning the 15-yard marchoff); the replay officials must have "conclusive evidence" that the on-field ejection decision was wrong in order to rescind it.

Yikes. At least one of the weekend's ejections (in the Texas A&M-Rice game) was probably a late hit, but probably not "targeting". Ergo, the Texas A&M defender should not have been tossed.

And then there was the Cal-Northwestern game, in which Bears linebacker Chris McCain leveled Wildcats QB Trevor Siemian after Siemian delivered a pass. A violent hit? For sure. A late hit? Possibly. "Targeting"? Well, that's where it gets dicey.

For starters, McCain stands 6'6" to Siemian's 6'3", so even a "clean" hit runs the risk of contact around the head. Video replays showed, at worst, McCain's helmet riding up toward Siemian's chin as the play ended.

Those replays should have been seen by an official to decide if the on-field decision to eject McCain was warranted. There was plenty of confusion at Memorial Stadium before McCain was led off to the locker room, but it turns out the one thing that didn't happen was an official replay of the video!

Two days after the game, the Pac-12 conference issued a statement. I quote in part:  "because of a technical failure and resulting breakdown in communication, the play in question was not actually reviewed after the replay official was made aware that McCain had been ejected for Targeting.
Because the Targeting penalty was not reviewed at the time, the Pac-12 Conference has reviewed the play and determined that McCain should have been reinstated into the game."
Yikes again. "Technical failure"? "Breakdown in communication"? And the net result is the ejection of a key player?
The NCAA's attempt to police headhunting is laudable, but the cure is questionable. Any time there's this much uncertainty about a decision with such dire consequences, you have set up a recipe for disaster. 

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