I feel confident calling the below play, a dangerous hit on Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew near the end of Friday night’s game, a grab bag of potential penalties and injuries. But to refresh everyone, see for yourself:
Porter Gustin missed the 1st half tonight due to targeting in the last game... and now he's doing this?? pic.twitter.com/RMym4s5rZA— CFB Gif'er (@CFBgifer) September 22, 2018
That sure looks like targeting, and one could make the argument it’s roughing the passer and a hit on a defenseless player. At the very least, it was an incredibly dangerous hit that served absolutely no purpose — the ball was out, Minshew was wrapped up and going to the ground, and ... blammo, headshot. it didn’t even get a second look, and play continued without a stoppage to check on the penalty or player.
Scott said he had consulted the officiating team about that call. He said every play is reviewed.
“So you can certainly assume that play got a lot of looks, not just from the replay booth at the stadium, but we’ve got our command center back in San Francisco with our head of officiating and a bunch of experienced replay guys, who absolutely would have looked at that play,” he said.
This doesn’t actually say a whole lot, and is a careful statement that speaks in hypotheticals — “you can certainly assume” and “absolutely would have.” It doesn’t actually concretely say what actually unfolded. One could actually argue the wording is a signal the crew missed what happened in the moment.
The worst part is this:
He said it also was looked at afterward and it was not determined to be targeting.
“As you know, in any given game there are a lot of close calls, and this was a very, very close one. No doubt about it,” Scott said.
In determining the hit wasn’t targeting but calling it very, very close, the Pac-12 is setting a threshold and precedent. If this is borderline, what actually steps over the line? And what goes into the decision to retroactively admit a mistake or punish a player? If it was very, very close, why not even stop the play to take a closer look at it and the player that took a helmet to the face? All of that is even less clear after Saturday’s scrum.
What Scott does in the above quotes is absolve his officiating crew and conference while creating cover for them. He avoids having to deal with a mistake that may have influenced the outcome of a game while saying the crew has a procedure and would have followed it. He satisfies the short term and leaves the long-term questions and consequences alone.
Bad hits won’t go away overnight. Headshots and concussions won’t go away quickly, either, and likely never will completely. To actually change behavior, increase safety, and limit the number of catastrophic hits, everyone has to do their part, both now and in the long run.
That includes making it clear that these types of hits will be flagged, reviewed, or retroactively called out. It includes being consistent in that review and punishing hits that have no business in the game. Punishment acts as a deterrent for players and coaches alike, whether it’s in the form of yards during a game or a suspension. If a type of hit or penalty has an effect on games, that’s exactly the way to make a coach pay attention and make corrections in any way they can.
Whether you believe the hit on Minshew was a penalty or not — and I’m still seeing very few that can argue the latter, outside of the conference itself — the question everyone needs to ask themselves is whether hits like it belong in football. If the answer is no, and they’re needlessly reckless or dangerous, then everyone needs to do their part to call them out, to create real deterrents for them, and to teach better tackling.
Scott chose to protect his conference and officiating crew over the players, and that’s the rub in this and all things NCAA. The reflex is to protect the institution, and that comes at the expense of the player whose brain got rattled around in his skull. In this case, the alternative to going on the defense is as simple as admitting a mistake, vowing to do better, and actually following through — really committing to processes and an emphasis with officiating crews on player safety.
If conferences, officials and coaches don’t do a better job protecting players, we’ll continue to see headshots that everyone will have to reckon with in the coming years and decades as we better understand the effects of violent blows to the head and see those effects continue to play out in players’ lives.