Published on September 22nd, 2013 | by Mike Mandell, Sports Editor
NCAA needs to revisit new targeting rule
Last Saturday, college football’s new targeting rule was thrown into the spotlight for the umpteenth time in a game between Alabama and Texas A&M that some considered to be the biggest in years.
Once again, the play in question left little doubt that the new rule goes a bit too far.
With 8:41 left in the second quarter, Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix made what appeared to be clean contact with Texas A&M wide receiver Derel Walker, jarring the ball out of Walker’s hands and forcing an incomplete pass. Unfortunately for Clinton-Dix, the head referee ruled that the hit met the criteria of NCAA’s new targeting rule. According to the rule, “no player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.” Under the provisions of the targeting rule, this originally meant that Clinton-Dix was ejected from the game.
Moments later, the ejection was overturned. While the 15-yard personal foul penalty still stood, the referee’s review of the hit correctly determined that the hit Clinton-Dix made did not warrant removing him from the game. It was a big relief for Alabama, who no longer had to worry about forcing to plan against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses without one of the country’s premier defensive backs.
For that reason, the consequences could have potentially have been more severe. Had Clinton-Dix been ejected, Texas A&M would have had a significant advantage with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel throwing against a depleted Alabama secondary. That would have been a huge advantage for the Aggies, who were only down a touchdown at the time the play happened. Even though that didn’t happen, the ensuing 15-yard penalty meant that Texas A&M had a first down, giving them the chance to continue the drive.
In the end, the fallout didn’t end up being too serious. Clinton-Dix played the remainder of the game, and Alabama held on for a 49-42 victory that avenged their only loss of 2012. Still, the incident was one of many that have created controversy over the new NCAA rule. In this game, which had national championship implications for both teams involved, the result could have potentially done major damage to Alabama’s quest to win their third straight BCS title.
It’s easy to see why the rule was created. While some fans say that the game is being made “softer” with all of the new safety regulations, the public reaction to the increase in safety regulation has been unjustifiably overblown. The physical and mental toughness that has always been the staple of American football is still there, and always will be. The problem is that this particular rule fails to make a distinction between hardnosed football plays and truly dangerous plays that warrant removal from the game.
In this case, Clinton-Dix was trying to make a play on the ball when he inadvertently made contact with Walker’s helmet–not with his own helmet, but with his shoulder pads. It certainly wasn’t intentional, and was actually a solid defensive play to prevent Walker from making a catch down the sidelines.
Some might argue that this incident was a particularly bad call by the referee, one that should be viewed independently from the rule itself, and they may have a point. In hindsight, it didn’t appear that Clinton-Dix “targeted” Walker in the at all, as he made the play he did in an effort to knock the ball down or make an interception. That may be true, but that sentiment somewhat misses the point; referees have too much discretion in determining what does and doesn’t constitute as a targeting penalty. In this case, that discretion resulted in what was originally an undeserving disqualification.
The NCAA does need to continue to be proactive about making the game safer for the players. That means continuing to penalize and remove players from the game for leading headfirst and making deliberate, helmet-to-helmet contact with opposing players. There is still plenty of room to make aggressive plays and hard hits without putting the other player’s career–or, in some cases, their life–in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, the targeting rule goes a bit beyond that parameter. It discourages players from making clean football plays out of fear for being penalized or ejected from the game. Hopefully, the NCAA will review the rule at the end of the year and make a much-needed change.
Football will always be football, regardless of what some doomsdayers want people to believe about the sport trying to eliminate the physical nature of the game.
However, that doesn’t mean that all safety regulations are good by default. The targeting rule, as good as its intentions may seem, is one that isn’t.