It would take some major changes to the rules, even more major than some of the changes we've already seen, for me to stop loving football, and if television ratings, revenue, jersey sales and social media are any indication, America feels the same way.
That said, while most advancements within the game have been for its betterment, I'm not so sure about the rules they've made in an attempt to deter hits to the head.
I just don't think referees are qualified to discern at real speed whether or not borderline hits are, in fact, a) squarely to the head and b) intentional. Yet, unfortunately, 90 percent of the hits that are called as such fall into the "borderline" area. There are several openly violent hits, but mere violence should not equate to illegality.
If it does, then we're on the verge of a very dicey time for the sport.
Already at NFL games, after any big hit, the first reaction for many fans isn't a high five or a cheer or (if it's one of "our guys") a cringe. The first reaction is usually a look over at the closest two or three officials to see if there's a flag on the play.
This is a terrible way to consume football at its hard-hitting best.
But with concussion lawsuits a reality and with the very, very minute sliver of concussed players from eras gone by resulting in some form of tragedy (Dave Duerson, Junior Seau) that may possibly have had something to do with brain injuries, the mind-set of erring on the side of safety, drastically so, has enveloped the NFL and will soon be coming to a college football game near you.
Starting this season, college referees will have the discretion to eject a player they think is targeting the area above the shoulders of an opposing player with a hit. If a player is ejected in the second half of a game, he will be suspended for the first half of the following game.
College referees are already pretty shaky. Arming them with something as impactful as this, with the difficulty of the call for even the best referees, is frightening, like having your grandmother handle a .357 magnum.
Last season, there were 99 "targeting" penalties over the course of around 1,500 college football games, so about one every fifteen games.
When we think of head-rattling hits at the collegiate level, the first one that comes to mind because of its recentness and because the deliverer of the hit is most likely to be the number one pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, we think of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's drilling Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last season's Outback Bowl.
You remember that hit, right? The one where Michigan's blocking scheme miraculously left the best defensive player in college football unblocked, allowing him a free run to the ball carrier, and resulting in a hit where Smith's helmet jettisoned about ten yards into the backfield, slightly further than Smith's lifeless carcass. Oftentimes lost in the hoopla of Smith's headgear popping off like a dandelion head is the fact that in one fell swoop, Clowney's hit also forced a fumble and recovered it with his left hand.
All within like two seconds, literally. Here's the video:
It doesn't get any better than that, does it?
Well, as Lee Corso would blurt out, not so fast, my friend.
At ACC Media Day on Monday, the supervisor of officials in the ACC said that the Clowney hit on Smith would have drawn an ejection under these new rules. This was confirmed by former NFL official Mike Pereira.
Here are some of Pereira's quotes while watching the hit with SB Nation's Mike Godfrey:
"When you look at the play by the NFL rules of the runner vs. the tackler, I think it would be [an ejection]. That's where the danger lies. You take what's perceived to be a great play and it turns into a penalty and an ejection."
"Remember that the only thing that has changed in the rule in college is that the penalty now carries an ejection with it. The rule itself has not changed. The NFL added verbiage about the runner and tackler, but not in college. It was already addressed in the college rule."
"There's actually another issue here regarding when the helmet comes off. Because when the helmet comes off, that indicates the end of the play. Does he have possession before the helmet comes off? It would've been a fiasco."
[Pereira watches the hit.]
"Remember what you're dealing with in targeting. It's the crown of the head. Not simply the helmet, but the crown of your head [points to top of his head]. Not the forehead. You're looking for a guy hitting who is looking at the ground."
[Still can't make up his mind. Looks at frozen frame.]
"If I'm an official, based on 'when in doubt,' he's out. He's ejected. And when that goes to replay there's no way they overturn it. There's a great potential that hit causes an ejection this year."
For what it's worth, I was able to freeze the YouTube clip right at the point of impact, and honestly, it looks like a clean hit to me. A violent, head-rattling, scary hit, but a legal one:
Yes, I am the Neil Leifer (look it up) of paused YouTube screen caps.... Jadeveon Clowney hit? LEGAL ... pic.twitter.com/RwAg4AwStb
— Sean Pendergast (@SeanCablinasian) July 22, 2013
And yet, the expectation is for college officials, many of whom struggle with bang-bang calls much simpler than this one, to make this type of game-changing (and depending on the opponent or the point in the game at which it occurs, season-changing) call on the spot at full speed. Specifically, with the Clowney hit, a penalty call there nullifies a fourth-quarter turnover in a one-point game and swings field position from negative territory to positive territory for Michigan.
Hell, it nullifies an ESPY!
To me, as a fan, that's the scary thing about this exchange between a seasoned official like Pereira and Godfrey -- that even watching it over and over again, with multiple angles on a high-definition feed and the ability to watch frame by frame, Pereira still can't determine exactly what the call should be.
And we expect these fiftysomething lawyers-and-accountants-by-day to discern in real time?
Good luck with that.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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