Hard hits won’t keep on coming with new penalties for contact
Colt Brennan and Jake Locker will always remember the events of Nov. 10, 2007.
Well, some of them, anyway. There will probably be a few blank spots.
The Hawaii and Washington quarterbacks were knocked silly on the same day, giving the college football world another wake-up call on dangerous hits. But do we just hang up and quickly resume dozing, once again?
George Gusman, a WAC referee from Hawaii, says no. The zebras have been put on notice; targeting ball carriers and initiating contact with the crown of the helmet is not to be tolerated. Hits like the ones Fresno State's Marcus Riley leveled on Brennan and Oregon State's Al Afalava on Locker are more likely to be met with penalties and suspensions.
Neither was ruled illegal; both defenders were judged by the game officials to have led with their shoulders. But that was heavily debated in the following days as June Jones wrestled with whether to play Brennan at Nevada and the brawny Locker shook off the clocking from Kahuku grad Afalava.
The refs are instructed to lean the other way this year and come down heavily on anything even resembling head-hunting. If they don't, the conferences will.
"If we're going to err, it's going to be on the side of safety," Gusman said yesterday, while once again graciously briefing local media on NCAA football rules at his Waipio home. "This is a huge, huge point of emphasis with the NCAA."
The official word is that penalties associated with illegal hits will be accompanied by ejections and suspensions, as college gets more in line with the NFL's stance on big, but bad, hits.
Someone mentioned yesterday that the goal is to avoid another Darryl Stingley.
It's been 30 years since Jack Tatum's (then-legal) blow on Stingley in a preseason game put the Patriots wide receiver in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, which ended last year when Stingley died at 56.
After the infamous hit, the NFL quickly addressed what should be the acceptable level of violence and risk, and to this day regularly hands out significant punishment for collisions that break the rules.
So why does college football -- which you might reasonably expect to be safer than the next level, where millionaires, not student-athletes, risk body and limb -- continue to wrestle with the issue?
Perhaps the answer is the fractious, sprawling nature of intercollegiate sports in general. The conferences have traditionally dealt with many crime and punishment situations.
That appears to be gradually changing, for the better. Conferences are becoming less independent.
Experiments with mixed-conference officiating crews have gone well. Such groupings allow for fewer conspiracy theories, as well as improving consistency in rules and enforcement of them.
Replay is another area where college is following the NFL's lead.
Gusman said the first two years have admittedly been a bit shaky, but better qualified people are gradually starting to fill the replay booths and the process is being honed.
Mixed crews and tinkering with what is reviewable and what isn't might affect the outcomes of some games, but the biggest societal issue in football will always be drawing the line between good old hard, violent contact and unacceptable danger.
There are no guarantees, and even the cleanest contact is hazardous. Remember Jason Rivers on the Superdome carpet for a prime example? He was out cold for a few seconds, and that's not a good thing for anyone's noggin.
Big football hits are either beautiful art to behold, or profane, illegal cheap shots. It all depends on your perspective.
All the talk about using your head and not leading with it can't hurt. We'll see how well point of emphasis translates into enforcement in the fall.
is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter who covers University of Hawaii football and other topics. His column appears periodically.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org