College football programs are many things—businesses, marketing shingles for universities, local cultural icons. But above all else, coaches love to say, their teams are family.
"I do feel pretty confident when I say that everyone, these players that you recruit and coach, they're not—you used to say they're like your sons," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said at Big Ten media days. "Well, I don't know, but they're like your nephews [and] close family."
Family members, of course, look out for each other, particularly in a violent sport like football. "We all in football want to do everything to make it as safe as possible," Chryst said.
That said, there seems to be at least one exception to everything: namely, the ongoing dissatisfaction with college football's targeting rule, which was instituted in 2013 in order to discourage and crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits and, in turn, potential head, neck, and brain injuries.
By the rule, if a player "forcefully" launches himself into a defenseless opponent, initiating contact to the head or neck area with his helmet, forearm, fist, elbow, or shoulder, or using the crown of his helmet as a weapon, the result is a 15-yard penalty and the immediate ejection of the offending player.
The targeting rule is college football's harshest player-safety rule to date—and given the kinds of hits it's attempting to stop, perhaps the sport's most important rule. According to Big Ten Conference head of officials Bill Carollo, however, it's also the most hated rule in the game.
"It's a big penalty, and you're taking away [a game], [when] a player has 12 to 13 games [in a season]—and we don't worry about this, but I know the parents and players do," Carollo told VICE Sports.
Players, coaches, and even fans find the targeting rule frustrating for two primary reasons. First, it feels overly punitive, as if football players are being punished simply for playing football.
"You don't always have control of it," Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said of players receiving targeting penalties. "They're not trying to do anything…. There's a lot riding on that for guys. It's their career. It affects their career. It's pretty harsh."
Last season, Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough was ejected from the second half of a game against Air Force following a helmet-to-helmet hit that Spartans coach Mark Dantonio subsequently said was unintentional. After the game, Bullough said he had nothing against the referees, because "that's the rules," while Dantonio expressed disappointment because his linebacker was "just trying to make a play on the ball."
"I don't think that's good for the game at all," Bullough said during Big Ten media days. "We already got to the point where I saw firsthand, where they're taking some contact out, where I was ejected, but you know that's part of the game."
Players and coaches have a point. Football is a fast and violent game. In many cases, players called for targeting are simply trying to bring an opposing player to the ground, force a fumble, or inflict considerable (but non-injurious) physical pain; they don't mean to do something that would be considered malicious outside the context of the sport.
Moreover, targeting isn't an easy call to make. Like many sports rules, it requires on-field, real-time referee interpretation. That makes targeting penalties inconsistent, so much so that the National Collegiate Athletic Association currently is looking at ways to improve how they're assessed, including the use of replay.
"We all know what a cheap shot is, and when you try to put it into verbiage, it's hard," Chyrst said.
All that said, targeting-rule naysayers seem to be missing the bigger picture. The rule isn't intended to punish players for "cheap shots" or bad intentions. It's meant to change how football is played—to take big helmet-to-helmet hits out of the sport, at least as much as possible, and in doing so protect players' brains.
If anything, people should be upset that the targeting rule is too limited, that it doesn't do enough to address football's existential crisis, and the long-term health and well-being of its participants. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that overall exposure to head trauma is the key risk factor for brain damage and neurodegenerative disease; obvious concussions aren't good, to be sure, but neither is the accumulation of subconcussive blows over time.
The NCAA has discussed taking kickoffs out of games, and there are sensors that could be attached to helmets to alert referees when linemen are being too aggressive. The Ivy League is mandating far less hitting during in-season practices. Many in the sport, including John Madden, believe that football may eventually eliminate the three-point stance in order to further reduce the number of times players are hit in the head.
This is the way that the game is going, the path that it has to follow. To carp about targeting is to miss the forest and the trees.
"People don't like change," Carollo said. "We're changing player behavior because we won't have a game 20 years from now. That's what the rules committee is looking at. There's some real evidence about concussions…. There's enough there to say, if you get hit in the head with a hammer enough times in practice, even with a helmet on, eventually it's going to bother you."
Carollo said that he talks with college coaches regularly, and that he believes they understand the point of the targeting rule. On the other hand, the fact that some, even many, still see it as a punishment for cheap shots, and not part of the larger change slowly moving across football, is concerning.
"I know a lot of players who are former players who just aren't right anymore, and I don't know what it is, but there's a correlation," Carollo said.
Look, it's nice to talk about family atmospheres. It's nice that coaches say they care about players, and for players to say they care about each other, and for everyone to say they care about making a violent sport as safe as possible. But if college football can't accept the targeting rule—which, frankly, is one of the most miniscule safety improvements possible—it's hard to imagine it will be very successful at moving forward and finding ways to save itself.
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