I know I risk coming off sounding like I’ve got a mouthful of sour grapes here, but that’s not my intention. Really, this post isn’t inspired by the two awful calls that went against Georgia yesterday so much as it is by a non-call I saw in last night’s LSU-Ole Miss game. It came on a play when it was clear that two players came together in a moment of awkward, random helmet contact. Hugh Freeze screamed bloody murder about it, but there was no call. In fact, the crew chief went out of his way to state there was no targeting involved on the play.
All I could think when I saw that was “judgment, it’s a wonderful thing”.
I get the pressure the NCAA is under to do something about the concussion issue. I don’t think any right-minded person can object to well-minded efforts to protect the long-term health and well-being of players. The problem we’re seeing, though, isn’t because of protection. It’s because the NCAA has chosen with the way it’s constructed the targeting rules to go after players’ intentions when they strike another player to change those. And therein lies the rub.
Officials aren’t mind readers. To expect them to know what’s in the heart of a kid who makes a play, often in split-second conditions, while being pressured by coaches on the sidelines and fans in the stands, is asking for something that’s less than reasonable. And I think officials and their conference supervisors knew just that when the new regime was imposed upon them by the NCAA and raised Cain in response. Which is how we got this absurd review framework that lets a penalty stand even if the targeting call is overturned. It’s nothing more than a fig leaf created to enable officials not to feel constrained to throw a flag for targeting.
But that’s not the most absurd part of this. Consider the SEC’s response to the Drew penalty, which was upheld by the replay official.
Here is the statement in verbatim, including the capital letters:
“Rule 9-1-4. No player shall target and initiate CONTACT TO THE HEAD OR NECK area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow OR SHOULDER. By rule, when in question, it is a foul.
“Also note that a replay official must have indisputable video evidence that there was no such contact to overturn the call on the field.”
The wrong word is capitalized there. The key word is TARGET. You see the dilemma that’s been created here. The penalty is made as severe as it is – a possible ejection and a resulting penalty even if no foul occurred – because the NCAA’s stated purpose is to stop players from intending to hit other players in certain dangerous ways. But the review official is only looking at whether contact in a particular form took place. In other words, once a flag is thrown for targeting, the hit itself is the sole evidence of intent.
This is incredibly counterproductive for two reasons. First, if you’re trying to change players’ hearts and minds about how they hit and tackle, this accomplishes little, because the players and their coaches will realize soon enough that even after they change striking behavior, the mistakes and penalties will still happen. And second, you’ve given the officials no incentive to try to discern the intention behind the contact, because they know that the guy in the replay booth will only be looking to make sure that wasn’t an obvious mistake by the official who threw the flag about the physical evidence and that the penalty will still be marked off, consequences be damned.
I would call this insane, but I think the NCAA is scared shitless about losing a concussion lawsuit and “err on the side of caution” are the words they want everyone to live by. If the cost for that is the occasional screw job we saw Georgia get yesterday, that’s the price of progress. That’s why I expect Steve Shaw’s comments about those two calls to be muted, assuming he makes any public comments at all. (Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if a few quiet off-the-record words about being more careful get directed towards that LSU-Ole Miss crew, too.) And I wouldn’t be so convinced that offseason changes to the targeting rule are a slam dunk. Bean counters rule, man.