The danger associated with football has some parents questioning whether they should let their sons participate, which is a direct threat to the sport’s long-term future.
But we have to give the much-criticized NCAA credit for at least trying to address the problem. The latest rules changes, to be implemented starting with the 2019 season, seem to be a move in the right direction.
In short, the NCAA Football Rules Committee has decided to make the penalty more severe for players who are guilty of targeting. But in an equally important move, the committee has also made it less likely that a player will be unjustly penalized for targeting. Both rule changes make perfect sense to me.
First, the more punitive part of the change. Any player who is called for targeting will still be disqualified for the remainder of that game. The change comes if the same player is called for targeting in a subsequent game. In that case, the player will not only be disqualified for that game but also the next game. This rule applies no matter when the penalty takes place during the game, which means an infraction on the first series of the game would effectively result in two games missed for the offending player.
The second part of the rule change is probably going to be cheered by most fans because it will reduce the number of players wrongly penalized and disqualified from playing time. Under the new rule, all targeting calls will still be reviewed by the replay official. But the person in the booth is now being instructed to overturn the targeting call unless every element of the infraction can be identified. In other words, the rule is changing from guilty unless you can prove innocence, to innocent unless proven guilty.
Both of these alterations should make the game safer and more fair.
Most football fans have moved past the idea that vicious shots to the neck and head are good for the game and even a sustainable version of the sport. Long gone are the highlight shots of savage hits on defenseless players that appear to be designed to hurt and/or intimidate the opponent more than to make a tackle or break up a pass. Those hits, complete with musical accompaniment, were staples of the early NFL Films features.
Football is always going to be more than a contact sport. There is no way to completely legislate the violence out of the sport without stripping the game of its appeal. But both of these rules adjustments are steps in the right direction by the NCAA.
The same is probably true for the new blindside block rule, though it is certain to cause some controversy. Starting this season, players will not be allowed to deliver a blindside block by attacking an opponent with forcible contact. In other words, if an offensive player wants to block an unsuspecting defender, he will only be allowed to gently get in his way, not deliver a vicious block.
A hard blindside block will now be a 15-yard penalty, even if it’s not targeting. Fans are going to have a hard time accepting this rule. I can already hear fans screaming, “He hit him with his shoulder pad right in the chest! If that’s not a clean block then no block is legal.”
I understand the sentiment. But this rule is just one more step toward making the game safer and, as a result, more acceptable to the wider audience.
The rules committee is also changing how overtime is played, although this rule won’t impact more than a few games per season. The new rule acknowledges that after the fourth overtime period it’s time to get this over with, already.
So, starting with the fifth overtime period, teams will run alternating 2-point conversion plays. Once the fifth overtime is reached, no longer will teams begin possession at the 25-yard line. Just one play from the 3-yard line for each offense. Once one team scores and the other doesn’t, the game is over.
This rule will eliminate what we saw last year when LSU played at Texas A&M and exhausted players on both teams looked like they were simply trying to survive as they played into the seventh overtime of a game eventually won, 74-72, by the Aggies.
In the past four seasons, only seven Division I games have lasted longer than four overtimes. But fans watching every one of those agreed something needed to be done to fix this problem. Now there is a solution.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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