The concerns over head trauma have been splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines for the past five years, and have led to a host of rule changes in college football. But one proposal for a new change—called the Tempo Rule—has caught the public's attention for, well, not making very much sense.
The Tempo Rule was introduced to the NCAA Football Rules Committee earlier this month and would prevent offenses from snapping the ball within the first 10 seconds after the 40-second play clock resets, allowing a defense to substitute even if the offense does not. (A team that snaps the ball too quickly will ironically be called for a delay of game.) The idea, championed by Alabama coach Nick Saban, is that up-tempo offenses are more likely to cause injuries for defensive players who can't get off of the field in time.
To be clear: There is currently no known evidence that players are being injured by the hurry-up offense or that a rule change would improve player safety. In fact, research shows that it's rare for even fast-paced, no-huddle attacks to snap the ball with 30 seconds or more left on the play clock. So this is a debate about nothing and affecting nothing.
"This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, chair of the rules committee, recently said. "As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes."
On the very surface, yes, that is true, but it's a rhetorical sleight of hand, a magic trick that obscures further, better options that achieve the same result. If the concern is that football is so dangerous that we're trying to find a way to expose players to fewer plays, why not shorten the season? Or the length of a game? Why not limit the number of off-season practices? Or why not eliminate what many believe is the most dangerous play in football, the kick-off? Maybe because those options would cut into the amount of billable hours college football is on television and the control coaches have over every facet of the game.
It also ignores the splash benefits of speeding the game up. A faster game that keys on endurance would take away a lot of the incentive for Alabama to carry four 300-pound underclassmen on its defensive line, or an offensive lineman coming in over 380 pounds. These are college kids, and incentivizing them to become morbidly obese to play football seems like it would be a "health risk" that outweighs whatever comes along with a hurry-up offense.
The important thing to realize is that NCAA did not designate this as an offseason where rules changes could be made, with the exception being any that relate to player safety. It's not that the NCAA must be beholden to its own arbitrary limitations of changing rules if player safety is a concern; it's just that the health of college players is being used to smuggle in rules changes that a few disgruntled coaches don't like. What we have here are coaches like Nick Saban, who has openly discussed the difficulty of playing against a hurry-up offense, seeking a tactical advantage under the cloak of player safety.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez called the proposal "ridiculous" and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters on Tuesday, "We play in a very violent game, but as far as this particular rule with no evidence I disagree… I don't think we need to lose sight of the fact that the only way you can change a rule is the health and safety of our players. And it's got to be documented, and there's got to be proof. And there's not."
Both coaches are right. And it appears that the rules committee is listening. Six days after initially supporting the rule change, the chairman of the committee, Troy Calhoun told reporters, "The key is this: I think the only way that it can or it should become a rule is if it is indeed a safety concern. And that can't be something that's a speculation or a possibility I think there's got to be something empirical there where you realize, 'Yep, this truly is a health matter' in terms of not being able to get a defensive player off the field."
Thankfully, the rule proposal will not go into effect unless passed March 6 by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel and coaches have until March 3 to present any evidence that supports or refutes their safety claims. If there's any evidence that players are being injured because of the up-tempo offense, we'll see it there.
Matt McCarthy is board-certified in internal medicine. You can follow him on Twitter here.