Fans don't like new ejection rule for targeting, but it's the right call

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Targeting a defenseless player with the helmet will result in an automatic ejection next season. (USATSI)
Targeting a defenseless player with the helmet will result in an automatic ejection next season. (USATSI)

From time to time the people charged with running college football have to make a change that the fans won't like, the coaches and players will criticize and the media will second-guess to high heaven.

We have reached such a point when it comes to making the game safer regarding concussions and head injuries. Here is the change: It has always been a violation to target the head of a defenseless player with the crown of a helmet. In the past such a hit would draw a 15-yard penalty. There was the possibility of suspension, after the fact, once the game tape was reviewed by the conference office. The SEC did it twice last season.

The rule of what constitutes a foul hasn't changed. The consequences for this foul have. This season if the official who calls the penalty feels the defender was intentionally targeting above the shoulders with the crown of his helmet, that player can be immediately ejected. If he is ejected in the first half he will sit out the rest of the game. If he is ejected in the second half, he also sits out the first half of the next game.

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Whenever a player is ejected for this penalty, the replay booth will automatically review the play to determine if an ejection is warranted. It can be overturned.

When the change became official earlier this month, the howls from fans were predictable. Their point, in essence, was: "These guys [officials] can't even get pass interference right and now we're going to let them throw players out of the game?"

Steve Shaw, the SEC supervisor of football officials, knows that such criticism is coming. He also knows that college football has to make this change for its very survival.

"In a way the game is under attack and player safety is in the forefront of everybody's mind," Shaw said. "We are just beginning to learn about concussions and the long-term effects on the brain. We don't know all we need to know right now."

The real data on concussions and their long-term effects is a long way off. So changes have to be made now.

When the President of the United States says publicly that, if he had a son, he isn't sure he would want him to play football, then there is a problem.

"We need to take the high hits out of the game," said Shaw. "We were able to do it with the quarterback in the pocket. I don't think [the new rule] will change the game. It will modify player behavior. And it will modify how coaches coach."

Shaw used the example of the helmet rule that was put in place last season. A player whose helmet came off without being pulled off by an opposing player had to come off the field and sit out for one play. Early in the season there was a lot of angst over the rule by the fans and media when players came out of the game.

But you know what? It worked.

"In the first seven weeks of the season we averaged about three helmets off per game," said Shaw. "In weeks 8 through 13 that average was 1.5."

The players modified their behavior and the equipment managers made sure the helmets fit. And that's when the penalty was missing only one play. When the penalty can be sitting out almost a full game, the players will be quick to modify their behavior, said Shaw.

"The most important thing for a player is playing time," Shaw added. "The most important thing for a coach is to have his player on the field."

Some critics claim that suspensions should only take place after the tape has been reviewed after the game. The rules committee believed such a system would not achieve the desired result.

"Any behavioral psychologist will tell you that for a penalty to be effective it needs to match the behavior and be immediate," said Shaw. "That has a big impact on player behavior. A player is not going to do a chest bump after one of these big hits if he thinks he is going to get thrown out of the game.

"Coaches have always been for player safety and knowing they could lose a player immediately will ensure that they teach the proper technique. It's one thing to get another player ready to play the next game. It's another thing to have to replace him immediately."

Shaw's belief is that the expanded use of instant replay to verify the ejection will serve as the backstop against potential mistakes by the officials.

"The official in the booth will immediately review the hit and if they have indisputable evidence [to overturn the call] they can put the player back in the game," said Shaw. The 15-yard penalty, however, will stand regardless of the review.

Shaw went back and looked at every play that could have resulted in an ejection over the past two seasons. He saw only two where the ejection would have been reversed on replay.

Here is another change fans will find interesting, perhaps infuriating:

The new NCAA rules expand on the current definitions of "defenseless player" to include:

 A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass. (No free shots on the quarterback).

 A receiver attempting to catch a pass, or one who has just caught a pass and has not had time to protect himself. (No clothesline or head shots to receivers over the middle).

 A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick.

 A player on the ground.

 A player obviously out of the play.

But they have also made additions to the list of who qualifies as a defenseless player:

 A player who receives a blind-side block.

 A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent whose forward progress has been stopped.

 A player on the ground.

 A kicker in the act of kicking or just after the kick.

 A quarterback any time after a change of possession.

That last one will catch the attention of SEC fans. In last December's SEC Championship Game, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray got his clock cleaned by Alabama's Quinton Dial after Murray had thrown an interception with about a minute left in the first half.

Georgia fans howled that it was a cheap shot to the head of their quarterback. Alabama fans said it was a clean hit and that the Georgia quarterback had become a defender. No penalty was called. The SEC reviewed the play and determined that no further action was warranted. Shaw did say, however, that Dial should have been penalized on the play but that the play didn't rise to the level of an ejection.

But that was under the old rules. Regardless of which side you take on that particular play, the reality is that moving forward the rule has changed. A quarterback who throws an interception is by definition a defenseless player and any shot above the shoulders will be a penalty and a possible ejection. Players and coaches are going to have to adjust.

Fans are not going to like the rule because it could lead to one of their players getting ejected and their team possibly losing a game. I get that. Fans look at the game locally. That's why they are fans.

Nothing wrong with that.

But the reality of the situation is that when it comes to the long-term health of college football, this is a global situation bigger than any one player, one game or one school. With a multimillion-dollar lawsuit on concussions against the NFL winding its way through the courts, college football has to make this change now because someday, somebody representing the sport will sit in a court of law and a lawyer will ask: "Did you do everything you could to make the game as safe as it could possibly be?"

The answer to that question had better be yes.

Aside from the fear that the rule will be inconsistently applied, fans wonder if this won't turn the game they love with such passion into flag football. It's a physical game. That's part of the appeal. Shaw says no.

"We still want the game to be physical," said Shaw. "The hits will still be just as hard. They just won't be to the head."

Will mistakes be made? Probably.

Will somebody get tossed from a game on a controversial call? You bet.

It's going to happen.

Bottom line: This is going to happen and coaches, players and fans are going to have to adjust. The stakes are just too high not to change.

"Is perfection guaranteed? I wish we could do that," said Shaw. "But what makes me confident is instant replay. But if we're going to err it's going to be on the side of safety. When in doubt it is a foul."


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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