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College football: Ejection will put some teeth in NCAA's targeting policy

The NCAA's new targeting clause — ejection for anyone who commits the penalty — carries quite the stigma for a player and is the latest declaration that those in power are trying to change the sport.
by Berry Tramel Published: July 18, 2013
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photo - OSU: Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf (10) avoids the pressure of Texas Tech's D.J. Johnson (12) and Tre' Porter (5) during a college football game between Oklahoma State University and the Texas Tech University (TTU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
OSU: Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf (10) avoids the pressure of Texas Tech's D.J. Johnson (12) and Tre' Porter (5) during a college football game between Oklahoma State University and the Texas Tech University (TTU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

It's that kind of mentality that Walt Anderson wants to eradicate.

“Football is a contact sport,” Anderson said. “You're going to contact the head. There are going to be helmet-to-helmet contact plays that are not going to be a foul.

“It's this headhunter type mentality, intentional acts, that they come up with a phrase and settled upon ‘targeting.' Something you're aiming at, intending to hit, as opposed to accidentally hit the bull's-eye.”

 

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Not everyone hails the new enforcement as a panacea for headhunting.

UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore retired from football before the 2012 season, even though he was team captain. Repeated concussions prompted Larimore to leave the game, and now he's a crusader for improved safety conditions.

“Ejecting players for split-second decisions is ridiculous,” Larimore said. “The speed of the game has increased. It's a violent sport. You're hitting all year. Now you tell a defender, you can't play the ball.

“The new targeting rule is well-intentioned, but it's yet to be seen if it will have any positive impact on head issues.”

Larimore said concussions and long-term health problems are much more a product of repeated hits, more so than any one big hit.

The solution, Larimore said, is not stiffer on-field penalties. It's cultural. Change the culture.

For instance, Larimore said, players are reluctant to tell coaches or medical personnel when they've been dinged. Reluctant to come out of a game or a practice even if they don't feel right.

Coaches, Larimore said, don't always put a player's safety first. Don't believe it? Go back to the targeting issue. The onus is always on the defenders to not hit a vulnerable receiver. Why is the receiver vulnerable in the first place?

“You have coordinators putting receivers in positions where they are defenseless,” Larimore said.

“The reality is, football's not a safe sport. It's about reaching a level of shared responsibility, everyone stepping up, trying to change the game in a positive way.”

 

*  *

 

In 1905, 18 players died playing college football. President Teddy Roosevelt summoned campus leaders to the White House to forge change. The resulting rules produced the modern game.

A century later, no one is dying on the field, but as more and more data emerges concerning head injuries, as more former players get punch-drunk or commit suicide, the same fix-the-game-or-else theme is bubbling.

“We'll either change it within the system, or someone from without the system will change it,” Anderson told his officials. “That's the charge we've got.

“The game is under attack. The (conference) commissioners are aware of this. The coaches. The administrators. We've now been given a directive by the rules committee. That's to send a message, this is serious. We need to get this out of the game.”

Officials didn't make the rules. But they're commissioned to enforce them.

Replay review will help a little — it can overturn a disqualification, though not the accompanying 15-yard penalty — but the pressure is huge on officials. A 15-yard penalty is one thing. Aaron Colvin missing half the Texas game is quite another.

One official suggested to me that the NCAA might not even have the stomach for the new policy and could bail on it in midseason, if the pressure mounts.

That's why the focus on targeting was so heavy last weekend. In years past, officials famously were told that if it's close on targeting, throw the flag. Now, Anderson cautions against that. Says that officials must get as refined on targeting as they are on holding or pass interference.

“We want to give you reasons that you can be certain,” Anderson said. “We're going to start today getting better with this. Make sure the rules are not unfairly administered to players. It's our responsibility.”

So Anderson urged his officials to get in the right position. Don't be on the move at the point of contact, because movement impedes vision. Question each other. Don't be afraid to pick up a flag.

“Circle the wagons even if we're wrong? We can't do that anymore,” Anderson said.

“How do we go from enforcing the intent of the rule to making sure we're not making mistakes on the other?” Anderson asked. “And it's difficult. We understand we're going to make mistakes. But it's our challenge, and we're up to it.”

But get ready, fans. One of your players is headed for disqualification.

 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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OFFICIATING SERIES

Berry Tramel spent last weekend at the College Football Officiating clinic in Irving, Texas, and is writing a three-part series:

Wednesday: Targeting.

Thursday: Experimental eight-man crews.

Friday: The passion of Big 12 officials.

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