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Q&A: Officials walk fine line in policing flagrant hits


Steve Shaw was universally recognized as one of the best game officials in college football when he was asked to hang up his whistle and become the SEC supervisor of officials in 2011.

Things have been especially busy for Shaw in the first month of the 2012 season. On Aug. 30 his officials missed a critical pass-interference call in the Vanderbilt-South Carolina game. Then, on consecutive weeks in September, SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended players for a game after reviewing the tape from the previous Saturday.

In one of the cases Ole Miss defensive back Trae Elston was suspended despite not being flagged for the hit during the game. In that case Shaw admitted that his officials should have called the penalty.

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As is usually the case, these kinds of penalties bring charges of favoritism from fans and of inconsistency from the media. And, as our Jeremy Fowler reported on Tuesday the SEC, in its desire to reduce the number of potentially catastrophic hits, is finding that distinguishing a good hit from an illegal hit can be a matter of inches.

I had a chance to discuss this issue and others (including the controversial helmet rule) when Shaw joined me on Tuesday for a segment of The Tony Barnhart Show.

Q. In general terms, what is the rationale behind suspending players after the fact?

A. This is not just something that the commissioner has dreamed up. It is mandated by NCAA rule that certain hits, dangerous contact fouls, any targeting foul must be reviewed by the conference office. So by rule, the commissioner is required to take a look at these. And I would tell you that in all cases, he looks at them through a lens of player safety and what’s good for the game and what’s good for the student-athlete. I could never put the words in his mouth, but I know that’s what’s in his heart when he looks at these plays.

Q. The concern from fans is about the consistency -- or in their minds, inconsistency -- of applying these rules. The SEC suspended South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger for a play (against UAB) on which he was flagged. In the Vanderbilt-South Carolina game you had a similar play where Vanderbilt’s Andre Hal was penalized for a hit that knocked the helmet off a South Carolina player. Both were bang-bang plays with a lot of contact above the shoulders. Swearinger was suspended for a game but Hal was not. What was the difference in the plays?

A. It’s a very, very technical line between what rated the suspension and what did not. What I would tell you is, first of all, both were fouls. Those are the type of hits we’re trying to get out of the game, where you’re targeting an opponent, a defenseless player above the shoulders. The difference really in the plays came down to this: (Let’s take) the play where the Vanderbilt player made contact with the South Carolina receiver. It looked bad because his helmet flew off. It was a foul and as you said, our officials called that because he targeted him. He made contact above the shoulders to a defenseless player. But the primary impact, and you can see it from the end zone view, is that he goes into the shoulder. Now their helmets do hit, there’s no question about that, and that’s why there was a foul. But the primary contact went into the shoulder.

Q. And the hit by South Carolina’s Swearinger on the UAB player was different?

A. When you go to the South Carolina-UAB play, it was a foul. We did put a marker on the ground. But with that, the primary impact went directly into the front of the facemask of the defenseless receiver. And therefore, both are fouls, both warrant the penalty. But then as the commissioner looked at that, I think that’s what the difference is. One went directly into the facemask of the other player, a very dangerous hit. The other, even though it still made helmet contact, was directed primarily into the shoulder. So it’s a fine line.

Q. In the Sept. 8 game between Ole Miss and UTEP, Trae Elston hits a defenseless UTEP receiver but was not flagged on the play. But the conference reviewed the tape and decided to suspend Elston for a game. What is the thinking there?

A. The rulebook still mandates that the conference review it, even if there is not a flag thrown on the play. Now I will tell you, that was a missed call by our officials. We should have had a flag down. But setting that aside, when the commissioner reviews this one, it’s in his mind, player safety. What you see, and you can see it well again from an end zone view, that in the last two to three steps as the Ole Miss player is coming in to make contact, he (Elston) lowers his head. And when he lowers his head he uses the crown of the helmet. And this is where, unfortunately, catastrophic injury can occur. All coaches teach face-up tackling, heads-up tackling. But when you lower that head, you line your spine up and you lead with the crown of your helmet. Then not only could you hurt your opponent, but you put yourself at risk.

Q. Football is a very tough game and the players accept that when they play. Can these kinds of hits really be legislated out of the game?

A. You think about it and you look at this hit, if that’s your son or daughter: Is this the type hit you want in the game? And I think then the other thing is, how do we look at it weeks down the road where if we do nothing and this player continues with this technique and then he hurts himself dramatically? Then we have an issue. So again, with the lens of player safety, it was a message being sent to that player. You have to change your technique for your own personal well-being.

Q. So how do you gauge whether or not you’re successful?

A. We’ve made some progress. If you think of hits on the quarterback, we’ve gotten better at that. We were very strict. I know fans didn’t like it at one time. But we haven’t ruined the game or changed the game. And now defensive tacklers coming in at that quarterback know they have to target him below the head. Now we have to get that same thing on defenseless receivers. And it is not the intent to take what is great about our game out, but to make it safe for our players. And still have significant contact.

Q. In many respects, you’re changing the way the game has been played. What kind of pushback have you gotten from the coaches?

A. The coaches all support it. No coach really wants to condone that type of hit. And we’ll know we’ve made progress with the players when they make those hits, as opposed to dancing and celebrating and chest bumping, if there’s immediate remorse, “Ooh, I shouldn’t have done that.” And so like I said, in certain situations, we’ve made that progress. The intent is not to ruin the game. It’s a great game. We want to keep the components of it that make it great. But with what we know today and with what we’re learning about concussions and spinal injuries, it’s just the right thing to do to make sure this thing is a safe game for our players.

Q. Let’s talk about the helmet rule. If a player’s helmet comes off and there is no foul involved, then that player has to sit out the next play. Again, why was this rule created?

A. This is another rule that was put in for player safety. We had been tracking over the last few years helmets coming off. Quite frankly, they had been coming off at an alarming rate. And I think the rules makers felt like the players weren’t fitting them properly. And not only not fitting them properly, but not buckling them up tight with the chin strap and wearing them properly. So playing time being the most precious commodity to a player, that was what the rules makers targeted in an effort to get the players to put their helmets on.

Q. Has this rule actually reduced the number of helmets that have come off?

A. Have we made any impact already? I’m not sure that we have. But I think we’ve brought it to awareness now, where coaches are really intent on it because players are being lost when they need them for a play. We’ve had, I believe, 46 games through the first four weeks of the season involving SEC teams. In all but one game, we have had helmets off, anywhere from one to nine. Nine was our most.

Q. I hear fans complaining that opponents are pulling their players’ helmets off in attempt to get them out of the game? Is this something your officials are keeping an eye on?

A. I wish I could tell you we would get every foul ever committed. It’s something that we have heightened awareness of for our officials. If you pull a guy’s helmet off by the back of it, if you grab any helmet opening, that’s a facemask foul. So yes, we’re alert to those, we try to get them. But at the bottom of those piles, we might not get them all.

Q. I know you love your job. But I have to believe that after a tough call on Saturday, the phone calls from coaches on Sunday and Monday can’t be a lot of fun.

A. Our coaches are great overall. They’re intense guys and they want the ball to bounce their way every time. But they’re pretty balanced. Sometimes the conversation on Sunday (can be difficult). But by the time we get to Tuesday, we’re kind of back to a normal spot. But our coaches are really great to work with and they want excellence out of our officials just like I do. And they’re very helpful in that process.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show each Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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