The two most powerful influences in play for the NCAA Football Rules Committee and the panel charged with judging its recommendations – the integrity of the game and the safety of the game – came into conflict last week.
Defensive players faking injuries to slow down hurry-up offenses was the issue that brought the Godzilla and King Kong of NCAA rules initiatives head to head. Like the fictional monsters, neither integrity nor safety are used to yielding to anything in the modern evolutions of NCAA rules, but in this battle, there had to be a loser.
Integrity was it.
This fall, schools will be able to file a post-game complaint of a faked injury to the national coordinator of officials, who will review tape and submit feedback to Fake Injury U, and its conference. Penalties, if any, would be determined by the offending school or its conference.
That’s a half-measure at best. The only way to change how the rules are followed is to enforce them on the field. Make it harder to win by faking an injury, not easier, and the practice will disappear. Short of that, this scourge of the game isn’t going anywhere. A bureaucratic remedy isn’t going to solve the problem.
Asked about the issue last year, Alabama coach Nick Saban declined to offer a solution but made it clear it’s not a practice employed by his staff.
The current rule holds that players who require an injury timeout must come off the field for at least one play, which clearly isn’t enough of a deterrent. The most obvious action to take would be to lengthen that mandate – requiring injured players to sit out the remainder of the possession should do the trick – but the NCAA wasn’t willing to take that step. Player safety was the reason why, and the NCAA addressed the dilemma publicly in somewhat of a departure from the usual stodgy tone of its news releases.
“The NCAA Football Rules Committee considered several in-game options to address this, including altering the injury timeout rule to remove the injured student-athlete for more than one play,” the release read. “… This concept was debated at length, but the committee was concerned with the additional issues that could be created and did not want to encourage players to continue to participate when injured.”
In other words, the NCAA doesn’t want players trying to gut out a legitimate injury on a crucial drive knowing that if they come off the field, it’ll be for more than just a play. And they certainly don’t want coaches pressing them to play hurt, allegations of which got coach Tim Beckman fired at Illinois in 2015.
Those are legitimate concerns, but what the panel approved as an alternative won’t drive fake injuries out of the game. An injury, real or fake, achieves two edges for a defense that’s struggling to stop a hurry-up drive. It allows a defensive coordinator to substitute and get mismatched defenders off the field, and it allows for a quick breather without burning a team timeout, which can break offensive momentum and come in handy when a defense is exhausted.
Those aren’t insignificant advantages, but coaches willing to perpetrate a fraud, and direct a player to participate in that fraud, deserve a heap of scrutiny.
Stanford coach David Shaw, who is on the rules committee, suggested that allowing the defensive team to substitute when the offense covers a first down might be a future consideration as an in-game measure. That’s won’t stamp out the problem either, but it might at least curb it.
Formal finger-pointing after the game is over won’t.
Reach Chase Goodbread @firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.