The NCAA's targeting rule is a disaster, but don't blame the officials

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Rules must change in order to make players safer, but handing out 15-yard penalties for not doing anything wrong isn't the way to do it. And it's not the referee's fault, anyway.

Saturday was the day that anyone still on the fence realized that defensive players are subject to arbitrary sanctions and that games can be won or lost on the basis of bizarre, high impact calls. In other words, Saturday was the day that the full impact of the NCAA's new targeting rules came home to roost.

In support of this case, I will offer three exhibits:

I include Exhibit C because I spent a good portion of Saturday quoting Clay Davis.

Georgia lost to Vandy as a direct result of the call on Ramik Wilson, which kept alive a Commodore drive. Ohio State didn't lose to Iowa, but the Hawkeyes stayed in the game for longer than expected because they were able to put up 375 yards and 24 points, both only marginally below their season averages. Ohio State missing their best corner could not have helped in trying to stop Greg Davis's surprisingly functional attack.

In addition to the rule simply being difficult to call correctly, due to the phenomenon of ball-carriers not standing still, there are two major flaws.

First, the rule has a presumption in favor of officials calling targeting penalties. This is unlike most rules in sports or in law. Normally, when you have the possibility of a serious penalty, the burden of proof is in favor of the accused. That's why criminal convictions have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas civil verdicts are typically awarded based on the lower preponderance of the evidence standard. In the football context, a good example is the presumption that replay will not reverse an on-field call unless the replay official sees clear evidence that the call was wrong. The NCAA has reversed this normal presumption, ordering its officials to give the benefit of the doubt in favor of a call that results in a 15-yard penalty and an ejection.

The NCAA has taken the radical step of forbidding its replay officials from reversing erroneous sanctions.

Second, even when the replay official determines that there is indisputable video evidence that a tackler did not violate the targeting rule, the ejection is overturned, but the 15-yard penalty remains. Again, this is a novel concept according to sports and legal norms. Normally, when a decision is proven to be indisputably erroneous, an entity with appellate powers -- whether a court of appeals, a sports commissioner, a regulatory body, or a replay official -- is authorized to reverse the decision, including the sanctions that resulted from the decision. The NCAA has taken the radical step of forbidding its replay officials from reversing erroneous sanctions.

The dreadful applications of the rule have led to criticism of the NCAA and the game officials. The former is worthy of derision, but the latter are not. The NCAA is under significant legal pressure to address head injuries in light of the growing evidence of the long-term effects that playing football has on the brain. It is a defendant in multiple lawsuits brought by former players. However, legal pressure does not necessitate an irrational, frankly bizarre rule. There are rational ways to deter headshots; Rule 9-1-4 is not one of them.

While fans have also heaped scorn on the officials who made the bad targeting calls, I've actually come out of the process feeling a greater degree of sympathy for the gentlemen who fill a part-time position in which they will never get credit for making calls correctly. They will get huge amounts of blame for making mistakes (a classic no-win situation), and their penalty for making mistakes (and often for actually make accurate calls) is to be called every name in the book by coaches, attendees, and fans on the Internet.

The bottom line is that the targeting rule puts game officials in an impossible position. In the best of times, it makes little sense for a man to become an official in major college football. Now, officials have to be asking themselves the famous question that Detective McNulty liked to pose to himself.

The plight of college football officials having to live under this preposterous rule is made worse by a trio of factors:

1.  The fact that college football has a two-team playoff means that not only is it important for a contender to win, but the manner in which that contender wins is critical. Take Ohio State. As Ramzy Nasrallah correctly noted, it is not enough for the Buckeyes to defeat the opponents on their underwhelming schedule; they have to win impressively. Thus, the Bradley Roby ejection did not cause the Bucks to sustain their first loss under Urban Meyer, and it may not have even been a major factor in Iowa scoring 24 points, as the Hawkeyes did most of their damage in the passing game by hitting tight ends instead of receivers. However, if Roby's absence caused OSU to win 34-24 instead of 34-17, then that matters.

2.  The moment these bad calls were made, social media erupted and fans were able to see the evidence immediately.  I didn't watch the Georgia-Vandy or Iowa-Ohio State games live, but when the Dawgs and Bucks were assessed with targeting penalties and ejections ...

... I was able to watch the calls and weigh in with an opinion. Social media has generally made fans more educated, but a side effect is that bad calls get more attention.

3.  Major college football programs make a ton of money, and they don't have to pay their laborers at market rates. They also face a situation where they are struggling to maintain attendance in a world of flat-screen TVs, dozens of viewing options on expanded cable packages, and the role that social media plays in the viewing experience. These two factors combine to create the video board arms race. Athletic departments have to spend their lucre somewhere, so why not on a Godzillatron? And in light of the fact that being able to see replays is one of the primary advantages of seeing a game at home as opposed to in-person, those glorious HD boards are increasingly used to show close plays.

So the next time an official makes a mistake on a targeting call, have a little sympathy for the guy. The NCAA has placed its officials in an impossible situation with Rule 9-1-4 and a confluence of factors have made matters even worse for the guys in striped shirts.  It's borderline un-American to stick up for referees, but in this instance, it's so much more fun (not to mention accurate) to blame the NCAA for a travesty of a rule.

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