Targeting rule misses mark, so far

It was the day that saved football. That's how some people interpreted Thursday, when the NFL reached a settlement with ex-players over concussions, without having to fork over all of its money or admit any guilt.

That same night, the college season started and South Carolina punt returner Vic Hampton landed on the seat of his pants and continued to roll over when North Carolina's Brandon Ellerbe drove the side of his helmet into Hampton's helmet. Hampton's head snapped right.

Minutes later, Hampton was on the sideline with a towel over his head, as TV announcers said he was seeing stars.

And here's the thing: There was no penalty for targeting.

This is exactly the type of thing that has been in the talk about college football this week, at least, any talk not regarding Johnny Manziel's inability to talk for himself.

And we have a problem here. The criticism about the targeting rule in its first week with suspensions has been about the difficulty officials have in calling it, about the suspensions adding too much ambiguity, about . . .

But the thing is, those are officiating issues, flow-of-game issues, competitive issues over whether players really should have been ejected.

The point of the rule is to save players' brains. Remember? The confused ex-NFL players? And the question isn't whether it's tough for officials -- they can work that out -- but in whether brains are being saved.

One week isn't going to be enough to come to a conclusion, but in watching Hampton's game Thursday, the first game of the season, I think the targeting rules don't go far enough.

After the game, I called ACC supervisor of officiating Doug Rhoads to ask why Ellerbe hadn't been thrown out of the game for targeting Hampton. Did the officials just miss the call?

"It was not targeting in that he (Hampton) wasn't a defenseless player, and it wasn't with the crown of the helmet,'' Rhoads said. "However, I believe there was a missed call for the late hit.''

Rhoads explained that the targeting penalty applies only to "defenseless'' players, and that guy carrying the ball is not, under the definition in the rulebook, defenseless. He is expecting to get hit.

This is all wrong. He was hit in the head, helmet-to-helmet intentionally, after being tackled. And the officials didn't think it was targeting and the rules don't think he was defenseless.

If that was in the rules, then the rules are wrong.

Right away, we are in a gray area. Hampton was actually on the ground when he was hit, and players on the ground are supposed to be considered defenseless. But that's not exactly what the rules were written to mean, Rhoads said.

And if it's a late hit, then doesn't that suggest that the play was already over when the hit came, and the guy running the ball wasn't actually running anymore?

The bigger issue, though, is why it's OK to target a helmet-to-helmet shot at a runner at all. Why not just include the guy with the ball on the list of people who can't be targeted?

A major conference source, who requested anonymity, said it's because there are old-time football people in power positions who are afraid of taking too much violence out of the game.

So it apparently was a compromise to allow players with the ball to have their heads targeted.

This is the trickiest of balancing acts for the sport. The game has to be made safe enough for parents to keep letting their kids play, but remain violent enough to quench the appetite of football fans.

But in fear of going too far, they haven't gone far enough.

Results from the first week of the season show that there was no increase in targeting calls. Last year, there reportedly was one targeting penalty for every eight games. In week one this year, it is believed there were six calls in 75 games.

It's the football mentality that's going to be the toughest thing to change. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently surveyed 101 major college football trainers, and 42 said they had been pressured by football coaches to return players to the field even after the players suffered a concussion.

It's still the mentality of toughing things out for the team. This past weekend, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews hit his head and was throwing up during the game, then came back and played. Matthews reportedly said later he wasn't throwing up from banging his head, but from fluids he took for cramps.

In the South Carolina game, Hampton eventually came back and got hurt again. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he told Hampton " `We don't need a courageous guy ...'

"Vic has great courage, and you never want to take that way from a young man. But he has to be smart, because with the kind of hits he took tonight, he wouldn't last the entire season.''

Asked after the game how many times he got hurt, Hampton said, "I'm a tough guy. . . . I don't think I'll be out a couple of days or anything.''

It is the tough mentality of every good football player.