The Head That Wears a Crown

By Ramzy Nasrallah on July 16, 2013 at 11:30a

Eighteen college football players died during the 1904 regular season. That's a fresh corpse every Saturday afternoon, with bodies to spare.

There were also 159 injuries that were classified as serious: Broken bones, twisted spines, pierced organs and other trauma you can't just rub dirt on and walk off.

The following year 19 died while 137 were seriously injured. Some of those fatalities occurred on high school fields, as football was rapidly growing in popularity and carnage was trickling down. The Chicago Tribune described that season as a "death harvest." Stanford, Cal, Columbia, Duke and Northwestern all dropped the sport.

That was football in its raw and most barbaric form. That sport doesn't exist anymore.

Over 100 years and as many safety enhancements later, college football is now primarily fighting against concussions. Death and impalement are freakishly rare. Players are largely protected from missiles like Ryan Shazier who probably would have killed someone had he played at the turn of the prior century.

Leading with the arms and practically upright: Ejection?

Disfigurement has been largely solved by advancements in medical science (Willis McGahee and Marcus Lattimore send their regards) and rules have changed to prevent injuries and encourage a safer style of play that is significantly removed from the veritable cockfights that were held at the turn of the last century.

While football is still inherently unsafe, it can always be made safer. Smart rules and changes that preserve it while reducing the potential for head injuries do exactly that.

Unfortunately, this season you will probably witness what happens when a dumb rule is installed.

Automatic ejections for targeting will make their debut next month, giving referees more power than ever to alter the course of a game - and season - on any given play. Since football speed has only increased as it has evolved, this has already made accurate officiating more difficult than ever. 

But where the automatic ejection is concerned, officials have been told not to worry about accuracy. The directive is when in doubt, throw him out.

Who gets the ejection here? Both? Neither?

Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to get a bad law repealed was to enforce it strictly. He was a football visionary: Clearly he was referring to old Halo Rule that required a defined space for punt returners to catch the ball.

That failed rule debuted in 1983 and was predicated on giving punt returners two yards in all directions to field a kick. As with all rules, it was created to encourage changes in behavior. The problem was those changes didn't make football safer.

Gunners worked on their timing to deliberately hit the circumference of the halo right as the returner fielded the ball. That allowed them to compliantly obliterate someone and be celebrated for providing the violence we all love and celebrate.

To strictly enforce that rule, officials would calculate an invisible two-yard radius while a player running a sub-4.4 40 rapidly approached it. The ref would then deftly calculate πr² with his eyeballs and flag the play.

Or he wouldn't. The rule wasn't based on protecting players. It was based on solving impossible geometry.

This is has ejection potential. Depends on the ref's whims.

After watching too many men in striped shirts swiftly miscalculate the radius of an invisible circle on the fly, it was repealed before the 2003 season. Verdict: Nobody was any safer. Also: Everyone sucks at math.

And it was dead until last season when it was brought back after a decade off, not that you noticed. That's because it was enforced intelligently this time.

Apparently a two-yard halo isn't enough distance to protect players from terrifying defenders like Shazier and Christian Bryant when they have a head of steam. Jadeveon Clowney nearly killed Vincent Smith with barely more than five yards of runway. Two yards is as good as two inches.

Halo Rule 2.0 isn't about distance as much as it is about safety: It's now a one-yard halo, but timing big hits and weaponizing gunners is what's flagged now rather than breaching the invisible circle. Defenders have to break down and form-tackle punt returners to avoid being penalized.

Wisconsin already gets away with everything. No worries.

This critical change to the Halo Rule eliminated the doubt for officials and promoted safety by changing behavior. Or, exactly the opposite of the havoc that the new automatic ejection rule is poised to unleash this season.

The new targeting rule will fail because just like measuring the radius of an invisible circle, correctly diagnosing an instance of targeting at game speed is incredibly difficult. That's because as with the broken Halo Rule, it is enforced by snap-judgments.

Under the new directive, Clowney's Outback Bowl hit on Smith could have easily resulted in a 15-yard gain for Michigan, the ejection of the best player on the field despite a perfect form tackle and ultimately a loss instead of a win for South Carolina because when in doubt, throw him out.

A glimpse into how this might go down: A snap-judgment (inevitable) automatic ejection produces an equally inevitable a challenge flag. The game is abruptly stopped.

The head official [Bud Light commercial] will send the appeal to an octogenarian [Toyota truck commercial] with even worse eyesight [you're out of Cialis - call your doctor] in the replay booth, who will take too long [Pitbull, again] to make this critical decision. He'll fumble around the the TiVo remote [local news after the game] for awhile and a verdict will be made.

Oh, and coach - congratulations, now you're out of challenge flags for when the equally-inevitable shittiest non-targeting call of the day happens a few minutes from now. And no concussions have been prevented.

Three potential ejections on a single tackle.

Getting punitive with incidental, accidental and imaginary contact does not promote player safety any more than the old Halo Rule did. And that sophomore who is just good enough for special teams duty on deeper rosters might just find himself bounty hunting.

Don't put it past some programs to take advantage of a rule whose punishment hurts one player the most. The Cobra Kais of college football wouldn't hesitate to use a player of reduced importance to take out an opposing team's Daniel LaRusso.

That's what team players do when their individual value is grossly exceeded by the needs of the team. It wouldn't be Clowney. It would be some kid Steve Spurrier calls son because he can't remember his name.

Most importantly, having officials base ejections on anything but evidence in a time crunch is a terrible idea. At the same time those deliberate, purposeful cases of targeting still need to be limited, without tolerance.

So here's a crazy idea: Throw the flag and call a running-into-the-kicker five-yarder for close calls. Leave the personal fouls for the no-doubters, which then get automatically reviewed by the conference and are all subject to next-game suspensions.

If you want to get even more serious about promoting a culture of safety, adopt the yellow/red card system from soccer and apply it to the guilty. Two yellows or one red result in a next-game suspension. Four yellows or two reds gets a five-game ban. Make repeated headhunting as punitive as selling a Fiesta Bowl ring.

Just aim for the giant breasts. It's the only way to be sure.

That productively addresses behavior just as Halo Rule 2.0 does instead of relying on the whims of officials who don't always have the best angles. How many times do you see a back judge throw a flag on something 25 yards away? That ref can now eject anyone on the field in an instant, with doubts.

It took 20 years of the broken Halo Rule and then ten more years without it to finally get it right. Too many game stoppages, controversial ejections and not enough reduction in concussions will ultimately do the same to when in doubt, throw them out. How long and how damaging it will be to the game in the meantime remains to be seen. 

Following that "death harvest" of 1905, football fatalities fell to just 11 deaths in each of the 1906 and 1907 seasons. They spiked again in 1909, which ignited the first purposeful changes to the game to make it safer, which included legalization of the forward pass and the creation of the neutral zone.

What they didn't do was tell officials when in doubt, throw them out. They were smarter than that.


Comments Show All Comments

BED's picture

Pictured: Wind being knocked from a Spartan player.

The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

hit_the_couch's picture

[deleted by 11W staff - no politics, please]

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

OSUs12-OH's picture

You need "the wind knocked out of you" for wearing that shirt in your pic.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

hit_the_couch's picture

It's 2 random male michigan fans, holding hands, at a gay pride rally.

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

OSUs12-OH's picture

I was kidding...I can tell what it is but thanks for the explanation.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

hit_the_couch's picture

No need to thank me, the internet is full of helpful strangers.

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

buckeyepastor's picture

How did we take something simple and screw it up so royally?   For a while, illegal hits leading with the helmet (spearing) were clearly understood as times when a player launches himself at an opponent and doesn't use his arms at all to wrap, only the helmet to hit.   This, and direct helmet-to-helmet shots, is all we need to be penalizing.  
I like the yellow card/red card idea, Ramzy.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

FROMTHE18's picture

There are going to be a lot of ejections IMO...the 15 yarder for leading with the head was near automatic this past year, its only going to get worse...I think eventually they are going to have to accept the fact this is a violent sport and worry more about pads and equipment than adjusting the way the sport is played entirely

acBuckeye's picture

I often wonder if softening the helmets would force defenders to tackle properly, with your head up, in order to protect their own noggins.
But i've also read that another major problem is the head-to-head contact in the trenches on every play. Most guys now lead with their heads when blocking/taking on a blocker, and those guys get drilled in the head multiple times each game. Perhaps they should be coached not to do that anymore and to block with your arms/shoulders as much as possible. Just a thought.........

Buckeye in Illini country's picture

As far as I know, no one is taught to use their head to block (at least on the OLine).  Put your facemask in their chest and then basically do a bench press for run blocking; even less use of the helmet while pass blocking.

Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

acBuckeye's picture

I don't know if they're being taught to or not, but what I was saying was that on practically every play (rushing plays), the O-line's and D-line's helmets contact each other. In a 3 or 4-pt stance, at the snap, you're automatically lunging forward with your head.

Chief B1G Dump's picture

1) Along the lines of your post...Why doesnt rugby have all these issues?  Perhaps its because rugby is more fluid and the play is more continual without allowing opposing teams to line up and assess the perfect angle of attack.  Whereas football is stopping after every play, lining up again across from each other and then running into one another head on at full speed...very similar to old school civil war type warfare, sitting ducks.  But this brings up a whole other topic about perhaps the spread being good for health, technology improving versus wholesale modifications to the game.
2) This is adding a HUGE human element outside of the players that can decide the outcome of a game.  As if the referee doesn't have enough going on, the now have a split second judgment call that could potentially have HUGE influence on the game.  Say we are playing in the B1G title game and Shazier gets tossed on the first play of the game.  The Washington and Spence get tossed in the first quarter.  Then Roby, Grant, Mitchell and Bell all get tossed prior to halftime...we'd essentially have a JV team on D.  You get the picture.  This is going to cause some major drama when these calls start deciding games.  Conspiracy theories will be abound.  Just a dumb rule.
3) I am still of the opinion that all these rule changes are not addressing the issue.  Look at all these guys who have brain/mental issues after their career.  How many are skill position guys?  It almost all guys in the trenches who bash heads every down.  The cumulative total of a career of that seems to always be the culprit.  It's not these over the middle bone crushers that happen 1 or 2 times a year, its the dang 300lb guys mashing heads every play.
4) If the glove dont fit, you must acquit.

otrain2416's picture

Good thing our out of conference schedule in the first few games is easy so our guys can get used to this

We were born to love Ohio State and hate that team up north.

BuckeyeSki's picture

This is a turrrrible rule. All I can think of is Captain Kurt Coleman getting suspended by the B1G for the sideline hit against Illinois in the rainstorm in 09 ( maybe 10 ) where he "lead with his head" and how that was BEFORE the refs had free-reign to eject on the spot. This is not going to end well....

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

thirtytrap's picture

The targeting rule has the potential to take the outcome of a game from the players and put it directly into the ref's hands.

Doc's picture

Especially in "Big Time" contests where money can be made with gambling.  Having an official on the take could really foul up a game.  Even the ones that are on the up and up are glory hounds looking for their tv time.  This rule blows from jump street.  Mark my words, we will lose a game this year because of a shitty call.  My prediction will be AACC.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

acBuckeye's picture

Implementing this rule is going to be a chaotic nightmare........
I'm sick and tired of constant rule changes for "player safety." Like Ramzy said, most of the new rules now DON'T CHANGE PLAYER BEHAVIOR! They punish players for doing something that, oftentimes, they've been taught to do since they first strapped on a helmet b/c it USED TO BE LEGAL!
If you're going to make a major rule change, you better make sure it's going to work, b/c otherwise all you've done is make the game worse for everyone involved, including the officials, and have not protected one, single player from injury.

Earle's picture

Uniform changes are the answer:

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Maestro's picture

Is that you Earle?

vacuuming sucks

Earle's picture

Nah, I'm Old School.  Get rid of the facemasks, I say.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Maestro's picture

I tend to agree, the better the technology the more invincible players feel.  Nothing quite clears the mind like a shot to the nose.

vacuuming sucks

MN Buckeye's picture

That's what happens when you fart in your wetsuit.

OSUs12-OH's picture

Great Article as usual.  I agree with your standpoint on this Ramzy.  I really hope that the rule changers just stop now.  I really don't want to see the Kick Offs and Punts taken out of the game.  I can totally see trying to change the helmets and the protection they provide.  Make them more efficient and better (if that's possible) to prevent injuries.  That would be all I like to see changed.  They've really made the QB untouchable and your points were spot on with the RB and defensive tackling opponent.  How do punish a RB for putting his head down to protect himself or the defensive player who has to get lower to tackle the RB (which may cause a head to head collision)?  Football is a contact/collision sport as you pointed out at the beginning of your article.  I just don't see why the game needs changed or the rules at this point.  They've changed it enough as far as I'm concerned.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

Urban Nation Army's picture

Vision of football courtesy of "the powers that be" in ten years:
skip to 1:15

Bet you can't say "Bert Bielma is a bumbling buffoon" five times fast.

Hovenaut's picture

I have to be honest, I stayed for the Lingerie Football League pic.

ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

Hmm...pegging the over/under on when something in my living room gets broken because I threw it in anger of a shitty call...I'm gonna say 6 games.

Class of 2010.

Young_Turk's picture

A lingerie football league post, followed by one about pegging?  Now this thread is getting interesting!


rdubs's picture

One thing I think it might cause offensive players to do is loosen their helmets to try to entice an ejection.  Any time a helmet goes flying off it is going to give the appearance of helmet to helmet contact so why not loosen it a bit.  That way even if they hit you in the chest your helmet might go flying off and end up looking like a helmet to helmet hit.  

Talk about making safety worse if people actually do this.  It isn't clear that the helmets protect people that much from concussions, but a loose helmet must be worse.

rekrul's picture

Then they have to sit a play because their helmet came off.  If it does not warrant an ejection that could mean some important plays off for players trying to entice a call.

Out Work, Out Think, Out Play!!!

rdubs's picture

Ah yes, that rule, forgot about that one.  I guess it could prevent my scenario a bit.  Although one play vs. the rest of the game is a risk some may take.  Especially early in a game.

rdubs's picture

Also I can only assume the inspiration for this rule was Brutus ejecting Perkins from the university after this hit:

BierStube's picture

In some way I feel there is a false sense of security with the quality of pads and helmets these days.  Even the new SEC championship trophy depicts a very poor attempt at a tackle.  Getting back to proper technique would certainly help, but nothing can prevent all injuries.  I played a fair amount of Rugby for tOSU back in the day.  Yes there were injuries, but that is to be expected when contests deemed to be "elegant violence" are played.  Truth be know I was injured far worse over the years playing basketball then I ever way playing Rugby or Football.  Rules are not there to keep injuries from happening, they are there to keep the contest fair.  I certainly do not want to see any player injured, but I also do not want to diminish the game I love either!

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

OurHonorDefend09's picture

Playing slow or tentative gets you hurt soooo easily in football. This is going to force defensive players to think twice after someone gets irrationally tossed. Not good at all.
I can't wait to get pissed off about this dumb rule. I'm going to need insurance on my iPhone because I just know I'm going to Gronk Spike it at least once when Shazier gets tossed for having a perfect form tackle.

Don't give up... Don't ever give up.

nickma71's picture

I wonder if some of the younger readers know that Jack Tatum killed a man on the football field when he was with the Raiders. Well, he hit him so hard it ended his career. So yeah, things have gotten better.

Hovenaut's picture

Daryl Stingley....paralyzed him from the shoulders down, in a preseason game I believe.

A clean hit back in '77, it likely would have cost Tatum tens of thousands in fines/suspensions today.

Stingley passed away in '07, The Assassin in '10.

buckskin's picture

Remember that game, but it wasn't a clean hit.  The ball was overthrown and had landed when Tatum engaged Stingley.  Tatum used his forearm to make contact with Stingley's neck and then lifted Darryl's head up and back as Tatum straightened up his back, thereby snapping his neck.  Tatum named the style "The Hook" in his book "They Call Me the Assassin."   Two penalties even by 1977 standards;  1. Late hit.  2.  Unnecessary roughness.

dtanmango's picture

"To strictly enforce that rule, officials would calculate an invisible two-yard radius while a player running a sub-4.4 40 rapidly approached it. The ref would then deftly calculate πr² with his eyeballs and flag the play."
Absolutely brilliant. Hilarious. You've done it again!


Michibuck's picture

We'll just have to live with it, at least for this year.

harleymanjax's picture

"Because I couldn't go for 3"

MN Buckeye's picture

This confirms every opinion I ever had about Spurrier.

That's what team players do when their individual value is grossly exceeded by the needs of the team. It wouldn't be Clowney. It would be some kid Steve Spurrier calls son because he can't remember his name.

unholy bucknut's picture

I'm going to lose my mind the first time this rule comes out and bites us. Especially if it's not warranted. Makes me nervous giving the zebras this much influence.

Jabba the Hoke's picture

It is a terrible idea to put that much power into the hands of referees. I guess its a good thing they aren't NBA refs.

buckskin's picture

This rule is absurd, because you are taking a referee who already is making subjective calls on the field, and now asking him to take a step further to try and determine the motive of the defender.  Courts of law have a hard time determining motive with a 6 month trial and we are expecting a referee to get it right in seconds?  I am all for safety, but this rule goes too far and gives too much power to the refs.  I wonder if the NCAA legal division wrote this up to protect themselves from an NFL style lawsuit. 
I too will be extremely pissed when Shazier gets tossed by the 3rd game of the year.
I always used to laugh when people would say we may not recognize football in 20 years; now I'm not so sure. 

pjtobin's picture

I hate seeing any player hurt, ANY! Yet this game is kinda violent. At least I hope so. I just hope our kids follow the rules. And play just as fast. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad.