Gene Collier: Changes to college football, baseball safety rules go up-tempo

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Two significant safety initiatives, one in college football and one in Major League Baseball, rattled through the final-arguments stage this week with muscular rhetoric on all sides.

In the still highly dangerous football theater, the NCAA was considering a rule that would put the breaks on so-called up-tempo offenses by allowing the defense to substitute during the first 10 seconds of the play clock. On the still nowhere-near-as-dangerous baseball diamond, the Lords of the Game have apparently decided they've seen enough violence around home plate, so a rule banning most collisions in that neighborhood appears imminent.

Both proposals were unwittingly thrown into a kind of evolutionary perspective only Friday, when on the Twitter feed known as History In Pictures, there appeared a photo from 1947 in which three adult women were being pulled on a sled.

By a car.

It didn't say in which mental hospital's parking lot this occurred, but it was interesting to note that all three women wore the same basic safety equipment: an overcoat and a big smile. They may have thought they'd met society's safety standards of 1947 by at least sitting down, but that probably only ensured they'd be decapitated by the car in the event of a sudden stop.

Presumably as we evolve, we get smarter about these things, and you can be certain that 77 years from now, people will look at pictures from 2014 and be struck dumb by some of the reckless things in which the humans of that era were engaged. We don't even know how dangerously stupid we're being right at this moment, although I suspect it has something to do with cell phones.

Hockey goalies didn't always wear masks, just as batters didn't always wear helmets, just as footballers once went about their business without facemasks. Eventually, steady doses of carnage led to the respective tipping point, and evolution triumphed, even if it was disguised as uncovered sanity.

So on it goes.

On the modern issue of up-tempo offenses in college, some coaches consider the latest safety proposal a Trojan horse for a more sinister motivation. That's why South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier calls the proposal "The Saban Rule," referring to the head man at Alabama, Nick Saban.

Spurrier's beef is that Saban and some number of like-minded coaches are trying to convince the NCAA's Playing Rules Oversight Panel that defensive players are being injured at an inordinate rate because offenses are running so many plays in quick succession, but that their real motivation is slowing the game to better fit their own preferred strategic tempo.

Critics on the Spurrier side say there is no data, much less any formal study, to indicate that up-tempo offenses result in more injuries for defensive players.

Seriously, do we need a study for that?

If the number of offensive plays were zero, zero defensive players would be injured. If offensive plays total one, one or more defensive players might be injured. So -- is this not obvious? -- the more plays you run (the more football you play), the more people are going to be injured from football.

I like this proposal. It doesn't change the game dramatically and it could make it a little safer. As Bill Cowher might have said, "What is wrong with that?"

On the home-plate question, the temptation is to side with traditionalists who regard violence at home plate as a fact of big-league life. Young Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez practically rhapsodized about taking a hit and coming up with the ball for an out this week on Bill Brink's Post-Gazette blog.

In a past life, I was a traveling companion of one Pete Rose, who, in addition to being one of the greatest baserunners who ever lived, delighted in slamming into catchers, the relative proximity of the baseball and home plate never squelching his appetite for mayhem. He essentially ended poor Ray Fosse's career with such an assault -- in the All-Star Game.

This simply needn't be.

Part of the reason for such violent collisions at home in recent years, Buster Posey's broken leg being the worst instance, has to do with lax enforcement of the rules by the umpires.

By rule the runner must have a path to the plate, and the catcher may not block the path unless he has the ball or is moving to catch the ball. Too many catchers have been permitted to block the plate without the ball over the years, but the reason catchers tried to cheat on this rule in the first place had little to do with machismo and much to do with glove manufacturing.

For years after catchers mitts were introduced, they kept the basic appearance of a couch cushion on which someone had left a bowling ball overnight. To catch a throw in the pocket of those things took all the dexterity a catcher could manage, usually with both hands, so getting into position to block the plate early was pretty important if you also wanted to put a tag on somebody.

Over time, however, catchers mitts evolved so that they are nearly as pliable as a first baseman's mitt. In the modern game, it's not difficult to snag a throw in the pocket or the web and sweep a tag onto someone headed for the plate, all with practically no physical risk.

The new protocols will likely bring an ejection and/or fine for a runner who hits the catcher above the shoulders or departs from an open path to contact him, plus an ejection and/or fine for a catcher who tags a runner above the shoulders.

A tag play at home will be like a tag play at second or third from now on, which is good, because catchers have enough to worry about in a game where so many pitchers are throwing so hard that foul tips to the mask are giving people concussions.

It's already dangerous enough back there. It's not exactly getting dragged around on a sled behind a car, but it's too close.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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