Targeting Player Safety

By Kyle Rowland on August 2, 2013 at 9:30a
Ejection. Well, maybe not.

There was plenty to talk about at the 2013 installment of Big Ten media days. Ohio State took center stage, with new head coaches Darrell Hazell and Gary Andersen also garnering attention, as well as Michigan and Nebraska.

But it was the NCAA’s new targeting rule that quickly took over the proceedings. All 12 coaches and many of the players were asked about the rule’s impact. What commenced was reminiscent of a politician running for office. Players and coaches walked a tightrope so as not to offend anyone.

Player safety has been thrust into the national consciousness with the NFL’s concussion saga grabbing the spotlight. High-profile lawsuits and suicides have given way to more stringent rules in regards to helmet-to-helmet contact and the process of evaluating players who have received hard hits to the head.

The biggest rule change to date is a measure implemented by the NCAA that gives officials the power to eject players, in addition to a 15-yard penalty, who target and make contact with defenseless players above the shoulders. Officials will be able to access the replay to make the correct judgment.

If the penalty occurs in the first half, players would miss the remainder of the game. Those committing the penalty in the second half would miss the rest of the game and the first half of the next game.

Big Ten supervisor of officials Bill Carollo doesn’t expect a rash of ejections in the coming season. He understands the pushback from coaches, though. 

“Targeting is one of the most difficult calls an official has to make,” Carollo said. “Occasionally, it is obvious. But there are times when it happens fast because these kids are exceptional athletes.”

It all boils down to a major what-if. What if the officials get the call wrong? College football is played at a rapid pace, making it impossible for officials to always be in the correct position to make a call. Replay helps, but it’s a judgment call that could adversely affect the outcome of a game and, ultimately, championships.

Most defensive players have shared their displeasure with the rule, including Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland who called it “ridiculous.” The majority believes it gives an unfair advantage to the offense.

“Football is a contact sport, and there’s a lot of gray area in this rule,” he said. “I’m anxious to see how this plays out.”

Coaches are just as eager – and concerned. They’re paid millions to win football games. All of a sudden, a subjective call presents scary consequences. Player safety is understood, but coaches want the integrity of the game protected.

“It’s going to be a game changer,” said Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. “There’s a handful of plays where our players will be thrown out of the game. We’re going to spend a lot of time in training camp re-teaching tackling. Every kid has a video in his iPad that shows the proper tackling technique.”

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini went even bolder, calling the rule “overboard.”

Opinions vary sharply on the subject. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is on USA Football’s Tackling Committee, said the game of football is in the midst of a positive trend in player safety, citing the latest rule change as evidence.

The Big Ten has been a major player when it comes to safety in football. The conference, along with the Ivy League, recently hosted a head injury summit featuring representatives from 23 colleges. The two conferences announced one year ago a groundbreaking research collaboration to study head injuries in sports.

“Concussions in athletics is a growing public health concern with increased attention being focused on treatment and management of this puzzling epidemic,” said Dr. Seymon Sloubonov, director of Penn State Sports Concussion Research and Services, and a professor of kinesiology and neurosurgery. “No single research laboratory, regardless of how well equipped and funded, is in a position to resolve a critical dilemma facing athletic trainers, coaches and medical practitioners: What is the time frame for safe return to sports participation after concussion? 

“I believe that the Big Ten-Ivy League Head Injury Summit has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to combine our intellectual resources in order to address numerous questions and controversies about sports-related concussion. I was pleased to see a lot of enthusiasm among the participants to share their knowledge and, more importantly, to contribute to the filling scientific knowledge gaps at the junction between basic science and clinical management of sport-related concussions.”

“Football is a contact sport, and there’s a lot of gray area in this rule. I’m anxious to see how this plays out.”

Meyer is onboard with the changes when it relates to the health and well-being of players. In the past 30 years, he said the size and speed of players has changed so dramatically that it’s helped cause some of the serious injuries seen in football. He cautioned, though, that football shouldn’t be tagged as a barbarian sport where bodies senselessly fly around.

He and his wife, Shelley, had no reservations when their son, Nate, began his playing career. The Meyers’ oldest daughter, Nicki, suffered a concussion while playing volleyball. Meyer pointed out that head injuries aren’t just limited to the perceived contact sports. 

“She was out for a second,” he said. “With sports come some inherent (risks).”

Fitzgerald shared a similar story about his son’s soccer league, a sport played with zero protection when it comes to potential head injuries.

“I don’t think it’s a football problem,” he said. “I think it’s just teaching kids how to play sports properly.”

Ohio State and Northwestern are two schools that have made changes to their practice regimen in recent years to help alleviate concussions. Meyer and his staff did research and weeded out drills – mostly punt and kickoff related – that frequently contribute to head injuries. The Buckeyes have also added space between practices that contain full contact.

“If it’s for the safety of the player and it’s scientifically proven, I’m all for it,” Meyer said. 

The Wildcats have limited two-a-days to just two days after their staff found spikes in soft tissue injuries were in the second practice of two-a-days. Full-contact practices during the season have been limited to one per week, and even that is determined on the overall health of the team. In the rugged Big Ten, contact in practice comes to an end in November. But, at the same time, there are concerns about improvement when contact is nonexistent.

“You can’t not tackle and still be a good tackler,” Fitzgerald said. 

The former All-American linebacker has echoes the thoughts of other coaches when it comes to player safety: technique has an awful lot to do with it. If players tackled properly, many head injuries would be avoided.

On Thursday, the first Moms Safety Clinic took place at Ohio State. Meyer and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell worked in conjunction with USA Football’s Heads Up program to educate moms on safety in youth football.

The three-hour program featured seminars on concussion awareness with world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Lonser; engaging your kid’s coaches; heat, hydration and nutrition; heads up tackling and proper equipment fitting.

“At the NFL, we do not take for granted that we are in a leadership position,” Goodell said. “We see it as our responsibility to make our game as safe as possible – not just for the great players that make it to the NFL, but for all the young people that play youth football and other sports as well. We want your children – and all kids – to have fun playing whatever sports they love, and we want them to stay safe while doing so. That’s why a program like Heads Up Football is so important.

“Heads Up Football is a new program launched by USA Football that is designed to make youth football safer and better. At the center of the program is Heads Up Football Tackling, which emphasizes teaching the correct technique that keeps the head up and out of the tackle.”

When player safety is discussed, technique is a subject of conversation at every turn. Some might have fatigue or think it’s overstated. The stats, however, say otherwise.

When the NCAA announced the targeting rule in March, the rules committee revealed 99 penalties during the 2012 season would have resulted in an ejection, including Jadeveon Clowney’s vicious, but perceived to be clean, hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl.

“It’s a big rule, it’s critical,” said Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell. “Player safety is most important. I think a lot of times guys move, so they’re going to bump heads. But I think it’s very important we keep hits underneath the shoulder pads and keep it nice and clean.

“The game is fast. The game is very fast. When things happen at those speeds, they might miss a call or two. It could severely affect the game. But it’s the right thing to do (for player safety).”

Officials, including SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw, later clarified that the Clowney hit was not targeting and was, in fact, a legal hit, but the message had been sent.

Ohio State safety Christian Bryant has been flagged for helmet-to-helmet hits in the past and is known as one of the conference’s most gritty competitors. At a coaching staff retreat over the weekend, tackling and the new targeting rule were a hot topic, according to Meyer, with Luke Fickell demonstrating how to properly bring someone down. He’ll almost certainly have a chat with Bryant during fall camp.

Proper technique can also lead to less broken plays by the defense, and Bryant in particular. From time to time, he’s gone for the knockout hit, which sometimes doesn’t happen and results in a big offensive play.

“I feel like an ejection is a little much,” Bryant said. “If it’s purposeful I would say it’s worthy of an ejection. But if it’s not intentional, it’s not worthy of an ejection. It’s not my rule, but I will be abiding by the rules. I don’t think I’ll be ejected from any games.

“I think you have to be more cautious how you are tackling. I don’t think it’s going to take away from the physical part of the game. It might for some people, but it won’t take away from my physicality.”

Only one player was ejected from a Big Ten game last season – Illinois’ Earnest Thomas. The last Ohio State player to miss a game for a helmet-to-helmet hit was Kurt Coleman in 2009. 

For the Big Ten’s coaches, rules can be head scratching, but every team follows the same guidelines. It might be the age of taking manliness out of the sport. Preventing life-altering injuries comes first, though.  

“We’ll play by the rules that we’re given,” Fitzgerald said. “But my job No. 1 is the health, safety and well-being of my players.

“Are we in the best place? I don’t know if we ever will be. But I think we’re trending in the right direction.”


Comments Show All Comments

jthiel09's picture

Player safety should always be a concern, but this new "Targeting Rule" is going to be interesting to watch for the season and the discussions that are sure to follow.
EDIT: Forgot to mention, as always, great article Kyle.


hetuck's picture

The fact that the Clowney hit - leading with face mask below the shoulders - was originally termed grounds for ejection, shows the circus this will be. I did like Fitzgerald's suggestion that the ejection decision be done at the B1G war room, instead of by the replay official. That would at least help ensure uniformity. 
One possible next step will be to put a neon green halo on every players helmet. That would help officials discern the crown. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

JayDonk's picture

Oregon already has a neon green halo on their helmets. Too confusing. ;)

They only hate us because we're great.

hetuck's picture

I was going with the color the NFL uses to designate radio helmets. And I'm talking a solid circle, not a halo. That way, the entire colored area would have to be covered for it to be a penalty. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

Buckeye1996's picture

Clowney should have been charged with battery on that hit. That play never gets old.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

I fully agree.  I have that play as my screen saver just running over and over!  Love watching the SCum player getting blown up in the backfield!

BeijingBucks's picture

Is it bad that I think this rule will actually be good for the Silver Bullets?  As Kyle so eloquently stated the D was quite often going for big hits rather than form tackling and seemed to keep giving up chunks if unnecessary yardage.
I for one have no big issue with the rule as I'd like to see Brax survive to be an old man, but my guy tells me we haven't seen the last iteration of this rule and how it's enforced. 

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Jabba the Hoke's picture

I completely agree. Last years Cal game is a prime example.

Bucks's picture

Understand player safety. I don't want to see a player airborne like a torpedo, connecting with another players head. I don't know many that do want to see that. My issue is with the interpretation of something subjective, with this serious of a penalty. Has the potential to directly impact the results of the game (potentially 2 games).
Incidental vs Intentional & replay official:
I'd like clarification here on the process if called. Ref on the field calls this and the replay looks at it. Do they approach this as "incontrovertible video evidence" it didn't happen (meaning it is just a damn rubber stamp for the original subjective/interpretive call majority of time), or do the replay officials use their opinion on what the intent was on replay?
There is a huge difference there for me. Maybe not for anyone else.

Kyle Rowland's picture

I know the Big Ten said "when in doubt, throw them out," but I have a feeling officials will have a tough time pulling the trigger on ejections, unless it is blatantly obvious. Such a big call to make. I think it's unfair to the officials, quite frankly. 

yrro's picture

I much prefer Fitz's suggestion - go to a yellow/red card rule like in soccer. That way if an individual hit is borderline, you don't have to make a judgment call to mess up the game, but if the same player keeps making borderline hits through the season he's going to have consequences.

BeijingBucks's picture

Yellow... Red... Have you ever watched the ridiculousness that is international soccer?  Would be even more of a circus with inconsistencies. 
Ref with too much power is almost as scary as a red with too little.

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

WezBuck28's picture

Is he tackling madusa in that pic?

Mirror Lake Jump's picture

Dreadlocks for days.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

That's funny!  Upvote for you.

cajunbuckeye's picture

Drills, films, and lectures all teach proper technique,but in the heat of battle, sometimes you just throw your body in there. It's difficult not to play with anger, sometimes even hatred, and the violence just comes out. "Ohio" was our highschool goal line defense. Sacrifice your body, was the order we marched to. It was all reaction and just wedging your head and shoulders into a gap or launching yourself over the pile. I don't see how a player can make this split second decision in some situations that they face during the game.Time will tell

An angry fan...rooting for an angry team...led by angry coaches

cinserious's picture

Your absolutely right Cajun. I would hope this new 'targeting' rule doesn't apply to situations like that goal line stand (reminds me of Shazier flying into the LOS and knocking the ball loose). Hopefully the rule would scrutinize the more open-field type plays.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

acBuckeye's picture

I agree with Chris Borland. This rule will be an absolute disaster, and a nightmare to enforce. Glad I'm not a college football referee.

TWCBUCKEYE's picture

Clowney is a man eating monster!

"Nothing cleanses your soul like getting the [Mark May] kicked out of you."

Hovenaut's picture

Critical time for the game and it's future.

This rule is important....yet should be open for evaluation. Player safety, proper fundamentals and the integrity of the game are paramount.

I can't say I'm 100% behind the officials in entrusting them with discerning what constitutes a dirty hit and a wanton disregard for well-being. There's going to be shades of hope is that there is a standard that can be identified and applied moving forward.

cajunbuckeye's picture

The days of playing with "reckless abandon" are long gone.

An angry fan...rooting for an angry team...led by angry coaches

BierStube's picture

There is a lot of focus on the defender in all of this.  It will be interesting to see how they rule when an offensive player lowers his head and initiates contact.  Also, how will they rule when the defender is using proper technique and as the tackle is about to be made the offensive player lowers themselves in order to brace for the impact?  It is very hard to change momentum /direction at the speed in which the game is played.  We will probably have several forum topics on the impact of this rule during and after games this year.

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

Ethos's picture

Exactly! No official has ever answered this question and the rule doesn't answer it either.  How do they penalize if the offensive player lowers his head into the helmet to helmet hit?  That is a natural human reaction when you are about to get hit, no amount of training can take that out.  
I think this rule is excellent for obvious intentional spiking or targeting hits, but these type of questionable hits will just tick everybody off, not to mention the constant delays by reply "reviewing the tackle".  That will get so old..I be the tv executives are LOVING it though, more commercial time!

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

cinserious's picture

It is very hard to change momentum /direction at the speed in which the game is played.

A few of our incoming freshmen beg to differ...

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

BierStube's picture

They certainly will challenge defenses for years to come.  No doubt about that!

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

JLP36's picture

The problem with this rule is when you have a 230 lb tailback or 215 lb running quarterback lowering their head (naturally) when they approach the goal line or the sticks on a 3rd down and you have a a smaller db defending the line (naturally) and the result is a huge helmet to helmet collision. 
You will see defenders thrown out in that scenario. 
It is going to be ugly.
The refs don't like this rule.    These rules come from committees of coaches, not refs.  The refs have a lot to contend with already.  This is unfair to them.
Also, I am sick of the notion that a receiver running a crossing route is defenseless.  One defense would be not running a pattern at a 240 lb linebacker that is running a 4.5 40 pace straight at you!
I understand the desire to do something.  I just think that the something they came up with puts the refs in an impossible spot to make a snap call that is not just going to impact a play or a drive, but a game or games.  I understand the replay aspect, but there is no way this will be enforced consistently.


pjtobin's picture

I just hope this does work out for the best. Keeps kids safe. Teaches kids to wrap up the waist or legs. Something that is a lost art. It seems everyone wants to explode when they hit a ball carrier. Taking a guys legs out is a sure tackle. I hope to see a lot more kids doing so this year and years to come. 

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

Toilrt Paper's picture

What you're going to see is a defensive player going for a tackle with his face mask aimed at the offensive players sternum. The offensive player reacts and lower his head to take some of the blow. So it becomes a helmet helmet hit. What's the call?

vtbuckeye's picture

Maybe the offensive player should get tossed. The defensive player was aimed at a good safe place and the offensive player turned it into a helmet to helmet hit. 

buckeye_heart's picture

It may look stupid but I think that something like what Sterling Sharpe used to wear after he injured his neck would greatly help reduce injuries. Keeping players from dropping their heads and leading with them would be a step in the right direction.