Are football’s new targeting rules more harmful than helpful?

Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a rule in driving whenever your car’s traction breaks, and your vehicle skids badly, that you should steer into the skid. The car will regain traction and you can resume driving normally. You should never overcorrect. It’s your body’s first impulse, but will further throw the car out of control.

In their latest bout of safety-proofing an increasingly dangerous sport, the NFL and NCAA may have overcorrected. With a concentrated focus on eliminating head trauma, both leagues have increased players’ risk of knee and leg injuries. Knee injuries may not have the long-term health consequences of concussions, but their immediate impact can be devastating to players. Consider this: the NFL is the only major sports league not to offer guaranteed contracts. And also this: universities offer college-athletes scholarships on a year-to-year basis, never a guaranteed four years. So yes, a knee injury isn’t as devastating, long-term, as a concussion, but after factoring in the financial implications it can certainly affect a player’s livelihood.

Take, for instance, Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. Keller’s knee was ravaged in a preseason game after being tackled low by Houston safety D.J. Swearinger. The play was clean, but Keller suffered a torn MCL, ACL, PCL, and dislocated kneecap. Keller was on a one-year contract with the team and now his career may be over. As more and more players become fearful of fines and start aiming lower on the body, knee injuries like Keller’s may become more commonplace.

Photo: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an inherently violent sport. It features bursts of athleticism filtered through controlled aggression. It’s great that the league takes head injuries serious, but creating a targeting rule may not be the way to go. It’s like watching the MLB shrink strike zones from between the shoulders and knees to between the waist and numbers—effectively stunting a pitcher’s chance at success. Soon there will be nowhere for football players to tackle, unintentionally castrating a main facet of the game.

Targeting rules expect too much out of athletes. Fines, penalties, and suspensions are usually leveed after repeatedly watching a violent hit in slow motion replay. It’s one thing to judge players on their 40-yard dashes or closing speed. It’s overzealous to expect players running full-speed to adjust their trajectory in the last eighth of a second before impact. Rules are open to interpretation, and determining the intent of a defensive player in real-time is very subjective.

Athletes continue to get stronger and faster with new breakthroughs in dieting, conditioning, and sports medicine. Factor in PED use, and it only ups the ante. Targeting rules appear only to be a stopgap in the long run of the sport. The NFL and NCAA may have to consider serious changes to the game in order to protect player safety. Making fields narrower, cutting it down to 10 players per side, and eliminating special teams are all ways to make the game safer. These all seem radical, but basketballs once had laces, football players used leather helmets, and hockey players never wore headgear. Games evolve, and football may be nearing a tipping point where change is needed.

The NCAA and NFL should be commended for the amount of focus they’re paying to head trauma. However, in such a violent sport, overcompensation on head injuries will manifest problems in other areas. Targeting rules are merely Band-Aids placed over gaping wounds. Instead of steering headfirst into the totality of an unsafe sport, officials are focusing on only one part of the problem. Their overcorrection is going to result in shorter careers, lost scholarships, and a shift from violent headshots to gruesome leg injuries. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take as long to figure out as it did with concussion awareness.