The move to make a violent sport safer just took a big step forward:
It is officially time to relearn tackling in college football.
Many programs already have been in the process, trying to break the habit of defensive backs and pass rushers of going high on unprotected receivers and quarterbacks. But now there is new urgency to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact.
The NCAA forced the issue this week by recommending a rule that will eject anyone who is flagged for targeting a defenseless player.
"The tool we have is playing time," said Rogers Redding, secretary-editor of the NCAA football rules committee and national coordinator of officials. "The committee said we've got to get this play out of the game."
It is a bold move by the committee because it will invite backlash – not now, but in the fall. The first time a star player gets the boot for a helmet-to-helmet hit, everyone will lose their minds.
This is a change that anyone who thought it through had to see coming. A generation of football players who learned how to get attention through media-driven highlight films is going to have to learn proper technique and how not to target defenseless players. Emphasis on proper fundamentals of tackling is going to be an increasing part of that at every level.
It’s going to take more than this single rule, of course. Pop Warner and high school programs will have to emphasize proper tackling technique - head up and to the side, shoulder into the ballcarrier, arms clubbing around, lift and drive through. It’s going to take years for that to become the norm and for that emphasis to filter up to the NFL. But make no mistake - it’s going to happen.
For those who feel that this will hurt the sport, a lot of people - players and fans included - felt the same way when football left the leather helmets behind and faceguards were added. The thing that changed was that football became more, not less popular. Players will increasingly learn that the torso is the target, and they’ll adapt to it.
It’s a single step on a long journey, but it’s a good one. There won’t be a shortage of hostility from the fandom at first next season, but you can look for it to diminish over the years as nearly all such reactions to changes do.
It’s time that only the fans lose their minds on football hits to the head. The players have done so long enough.