First, let's talk about what's wrong.
College football players have gotten bigger and faster. It's a matter of simple physics that head injuries have become both more frequent and more severe. The NCAA says they want players to be safe. But their actions speak differently than do their words.
The enforcement of the rule differs widely. Some hits that are higher and more violent have not been called, while others that are lower on the numbers and/or feature less contact between helmets, or sometimes even none, are being flagged.
Sometimes an official doesn't see it. Nothing you can do about that. But other times the action is simply a blur at real speed, the illegal – or legal – hit is only made clear with slo-motion instant replay. More on that in a moment.
There have also been countless times when a running back this season -- out in open space with a defender approaching head on, has deliberately gone helmet-first into the would-be tackler's helmet. It's helmet to helmet contact, it's "targeting" to use an official's term, and it's clear as day.
Not once has that penalty ever been called on the running back this season. Ever.
In effect, although the NCAA certainly doesn't mean to do so, the bottom line result has been that an offensive player's health is valued more than is a safety, corner or linebacker's. And that has to stop, too.
SO HOW DO they fix it all? Short of a technological breakthrough that defies the laws of physics, none of the solutions are perfect. But doing nothing is worst of all. So you take the least objectionable solutions and employ them. That comes down to three things.
Instant replay. Better education for players, coaches and fans. Loss of playing time.
There would be some growing pains with such changes, just as there have been with any major rules change when it was introduced, including instant replay itself. But instant replay is the only way to ensure the right call is made when it comes to helmet-to-helmet contact.
Replay would show if the receiver's head snapped back because of a legal hit. It would also show if the ballcarrier ducked into the path of the defender's helmet at the last moment. In these cases, pick up the flag.
But the replays will also show/confirm if a defender led with his helmet and used it as a battering ram. Or if a running back did the same on a charging defensive back. And if that's the case, not only is should it be a 15-yard penalty, the player should be ejected.
Harsh? You bet. But remove him, whether that's for a full quarter or boot him from the game entirely. Because some measure of lost playing time is the only way it's going to stop. And that's because college football players are just like everyone else.
"Good" behavior is rewarded (big hits = ESPN highlights, youtube.com, roaring fans). Unless you take that away, through loss of playing time, a 15-yard penalty isn't going to be enough to stop it. The benefit outweighs the penalty.
HOLD ON. DO we really need to change the rules that drastically? Big hits have always been part of the game. Is this really necessary?
Players suffering concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy are on the rise. Most of the concussive hits go unnoticed and/or reported.
The problems they incur in later life do not.
I used to love big hits. But as it became apparent that more college players were suffering permanent damage, my enthusiasm waned. These days, I'd much rather see Casey Locker go low, wrap up and make a fundamentally sound tackle, and not just because of the 15-yard penalties Locker has incurred.
And the helmet-to-helmet hits don't exist in a Saturday afternoon vacuum. The majority of the damaging hits actually come on other days – in practice during the week. The NFL recently (and reluctantly) agreed to a policy change brought about by the players' union that a team could have only one full contact practice a week. Has anyone seen a dropoff in the quality of play in the NFL this season? Nope.
College football has no such player's union, and no one sees the NCAA adopting a similar rule anytime in the future. They should. It should be front and center and Job 1. But it probably won't be.
Slate recently published an article stating that there isn't any NCAA concussion protocol and that ambiguity is by design — in order to remain legally blameless.
That's an awful thought. The NCAA was actually created in 1906 because of numerous injuries and even deaths in the sport of college football. Their purpose was to protect the health of the student-athlete. At some point, they lost their way. They need to find it again this offseason. Right here, right now.