The difference between a legal hit and an illegal one in football is often determined by inches and seconds.
A player who delivers a hit to the head of a defenseless opponent could be kicked out of the game next season under an NCAA proposal that took a step forward Wednesday.
Consider this another high-profile step in the universal effort to make football less dangerous and cut down the risk of head injuries. The future of football became a hot topic again in the lead up to the Super Bowl when President Barack Obama said if he had a son “he’d think long and hard” before letting him play the game. He also voiced concern about whether the NCAA was doing enough to help college players deal with long-term health issues that come from playing football.
The NFL has been cracking down on helmet hits in recent seasons, handing out more frequent fines and even suspensions. But those penalties are determined days later, after the play has been reviewed.
Under the NCAA Football Rules Committee proposal, video replay will be used to determine the ejection part of the penalty, but that call will be made immediately.
And that’s troubling to some coaches.
New Temple coach Matt Rhule, who spent the past last year as an assistant with the New York Giants, said it might be asking too much of replay officials to conduct a thorough review of a complex play that could result in a player losing the right to participate.
“That seems a high price to pay for something that we’re not sure of,” Rhule said in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
The rules committee said it had unanimously approved strengthening of the penalty for intentional above-the-shoulder hits. The 15-yard penalty will now have an ejection tacked on, assuming the Playing Rules Oversight Panel approves the plan next month.
“Clearly if the guy’s head is down and he’s launching into a receiver with the top of his head, that should be a penalty,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “You hate for somebody to get penalized for just a good hard hit.”
Player safety was the theme of the committee’s three-day meeting in Indianapolis, with the ejection for targeting the most noticeable change fans will notice in 2013 across all NCAA divisions. The committee also tweaked the rule on below-the-waist blocks.
Chairman and Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said the committee wanted to address clear instances where a defender is leading with the crown of his head to hit a defenseless player above the shoulders.
“It’s a real problem in the sport,” he said, “and we need to eliminate it.”
Last season, Calhoun said, there were 99 targeting penalties called in the Football Bowl Subdivision that, under the proposed rule, would have called for an ejection. He said the player on the receiving end of the hit in many cases sustained a concussion or other type of injury that caused him to miss significant playing time.