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Starkey: NCAA gets 1 right in matter of player safety

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When it comes to protecting an athlete's gray matter, there should be as little gray area as possible.

Who would have thought the largely toothless, usually useless NCAA would be this country's first major sports organization to understand that?

As the NHL and NFL continue to complicate the head injury issue, the NCAA moves rapidly toward a bona fide crackdown.

It plans to start kicking offenders out of games.

Its rationale is two-fold:

1. If you don't like high hits on defenseless players, seek to eliminate them.

2. Seek to eliminate them by making a rule that serves as a colossal deterrent.

This past week, the NCAA Football Rules Committee unanimously approved just such a rule: A player who delivers a targeted head shot on a defenseless player will be ejected from the game. And if the foul occurs in the second half or overtime, he'll have to sit out the next one, too. The measure needs only final approval from the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which meets next month.

Sure, the NHL and NFL have been willing to suspend egregious or repeat head-shot offenders. But their punishments mostly are measured in money — by way of fines — or by meager penalties doled out in yardage (NFL) or time served in a box (NHL).

That's not enough.

You want real change? Start kicking guys out of games on a regular basis.

Sorry, but unchecked violence on the football field cannot be an option anymore. Helmets have become weapons. Video-game blow-up shots — as opposed to, you know, tackling — have become commonplace, as have stories of brain damage among ex-players.

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson is among those in favor of the proposal.

“I'm 100 percent in favor of anything that makes the game safer,” Pederson said. “When there are targeted hits, that's just unacceptable, and there has to be swift punishment. This appears to have been very directly addressed.”

Directness is the key. I loved the way Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun, chairman of the rules committee, addressed the issue. Referring to players leading with the crowns of their helmets, hitting defenseless players above the shoulders, Calhoun told CBSSports.com, “It's a real problem in the sport, and we need to eliminate it.”

Calhoun explained that in major college football last season, there were 99 called targeting penalties that would have resulted in ejections — not just a 15-yard penalty — under the proposed new rule. He said the targeted player, in many of those instances, suffered a concussion or other injury.

This will never be an easy penalty to assess. The game is too fast. But the committee addressed that, too: While on-field officials will make the calls, ejections will be subjected to video replay. The replay official can overturn the ejection portion of a call — the 15-yard penalty would remain.

I'd rather see the replay official with more power. He should be able to signal down to the field if he spots a targeted head shot. He also should be the one making calls on ejections.

But this will do.

Will there be complications? Of course. Defining “defenseless” and measuring intent always will be two of them.

Players also will lower their targets, which could create more lower-body injuries.

Active players will tell you they'd rather take a shot to the skull.

Retired players, particularly the ones with brain issues, might tell you differently. Their families surely would.

Kudos to college football for tackling the issue.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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