Column: Finally, a punishment that fits the crime

Updated at: 02/14/2013 6:38 PM
By JIM LITKE

Ejecting players on the spot for using their helmets to target opponents in college football is such a sensible idea that it’s hard to believe the NCAA proposed it first.

The organization, after all, has never been a factory of innovation. It practically defines the term "leading from behind," especially so on matters of safety, where it usually waits for the bigger, deeper-pocketed pro sports leagues to do the heavy lifting and eventually falls in line. Besides, the NCAA has been so busy lately defending itself from lawsuits and questionable tactics _ most recently after admitting it compromised its own investigation into University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro _ that most of us doubted it could squeeze out the time to even think about aiding anyone else.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. The new rule proposed by NCAA’s Football Rules Committee cleared an important hurdle Wednesday and now awaits only final approval next month before being enforced during the 2013 season. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who serves as chairman, said there were 99 so-called "targeting" penalties called by officials in major-college games alone last season that would have justified an ejection as well. And the 15-yard penalty on the books seemed even more inadequate since most of those hits, not coincidentally, also left most of their targets concussed or injured badly enough to miss significant playing time.

"Ultimately, our goal is zero. Is that realistic? I don’t know if zero is," Calhoun acknowledged. "But I know any time you involve an ejection, we’re going to see that number go down drastically immediately."

That last point was not lost on the college coaches. The few who reacted initially preferred the current NFL model, where a penalty is imposed on the field without the player being ejected, leaving the question of a suspension or fine to an impartial panel that reviews a video of the hit days later. Putting aside the question of where a college player would scrounge up enough to pay a fine _ boosters? _ the real-world distinction between the two models makes the NCAA version far superior for the college game, not to mention the kind of innovation that the NFL should consider stealing if it’s serious about cutting down on head-hunting.

Pro football players have iron-clad contracts and a combative-when-it-wants-to-be players union to deal with the fallout, whether they’re the aggressor or the target. College players have health insurance, in addition to tuition, room and board costs that come with a scholarship, but not much else to fall back on. That’s because the NCAA, which basically invented the term "student-athlete" in order to avoid players’ compensation claims, values the facade of amateurism above all else.

That duplicity merits a separate column for another day. But even President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this month during which he expressed concerns about concussions, felt compelled to point out that college players were exposed to the same risks that pros were without anywhere near the same compensation. So trying to protect the college kids better by tweaking the rules is the least the NCAA could do.

The real question, of course, is what the new rule will look like when it’s put into practice. A "targeting" call will result in a 15-yard penalty and officials will have the discretion to immediately eject the offending player. Replay officials can view a video replay and _ assuming they find conclusive evidence there was no intent _ overturn the ejection decision. But the 15-yard penalty stands in either case. Players ejected in the first half of a game miss the rest of that one; those ejected in the second half would be required to sit out the first half of their next game.

Sounds simple enough. But will the officials have enough guts to make the call late in the second half of a big game in full view of a packed stadium, say, the SEC championship, with the fans and coaches howling and a chance to advance to the national title game hanging in the balance? We’ll see.

When asked his reaction to the rule in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, new Temple coach Matt Rhule followed the NCAA’s party line, "We should always err on the side of safety."

But a moment later, Rhule, who spent last year as an NFL assistant to New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, started backtracking.

"What is the mechanism for after the fact, if a penalty happens in the first half, and a young man sits out and his team loses? Then they go back and look at it and they determine it wasn’t an illegal hit. There was no intent to target the head. What are they then going to do?"

Hopefully, the answer will be nothing.

Unfair as that sounds, the rough justice handed out so far has always been to the detriment of the player on the receiving end. If football _ at every level _ is serious about safety, this is as good a time as any to put a foot on the scale.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)