For over a decade, I have written a newspaper column that proposes ideas to make sports safer and reduce injuries, while at the same time minimizing the effect on the game itself. I usually suggest solutions that could reasonably be expected to be adopted. But after seeing the awful actions of fans at the University of Tennessee last week, and watching players appear to fake injuries, which incited that crowd, I feel more radical solutions are needed to fix these problems. To be clear, I seriously doubt either of these proposals would ever be adopted. They certainly would be hated by coaches, players, school administrators, and fans, but I believe they would work.
Tennessee-Ole Miss football game marred by fans throwing objects onto the field
The end of the Tennessee-Ole Miss clash Saturday was marred by hundreds, and maybe thousands, of fans throwing bottles, food, and even a golf ball onto the field. The protests arose in response to a few controversial officiating decisions and several Ole Miss players faking injuries to slow the Volunteers, at least in the eyes of the home fans.
I’d like to propose solutions for the bad behavior of fans and manipulative players. The ideas won’t be popular, but they would be effective.
Solving the issue of players faking injuries to slow the other team’s offense
Many of the UT faithful were unhappy with Rebels’ defensive players who seemed to go down every time the Vols offense moved the ball. This delay strategy, if that’s what it was, isn’t new, but it is getting more common with high-tempo offenses. Earlier this year, the American Football Coaches Association even asked the NCAA rules committee to take action to deter players from faking injuries.
Why faking injuries is bad for the players
From a medical perspective, players lying on the field acting hurt makes it extremely hard for officials, athletic trainers, and team physicians to tell if the player is actually hurt. They must assume every injury is real. If they don’t, they put that athlete’s health at risk.
Some have suggested each of these “injuries” should be reviewed after the game. If one is determined to be fake, then that player would be suspended for the next game. If adopted, I doubt it would ever be enforced. After the game, the coach would announce the player has some injury and will undergo tests (to avoid the suspension). Then the player would miraculously heal by next Saturday.
Any injured player should miss the rest of that possession.
I propose an in-game fix. Any time a player goes down with injury, he cannot return to the field during that possession. If a linebacker lies on the field after the opposing offense’s first play, he can’t return until after they have either scored or turned the ball over to his offense. Maybe he misses one play. Maybe 10.
Too harsh? If he is truly hurt, he will miss that series anyway. Even if it is a real medical check of what turns out to be mild injury, it will take that long to make the determination. It takes a few minutes to get the player to the medical tent, have the doctor examine him, have the athletic trainer tape him, and get him back.
Coaches would stop instructing players to act hurt.
Quickly, coaches would stop instructing players to lie down after plays. They won’t take the chance to have their best players miss an entire possession. And they won’t put in backups to fake injuries and slow the game down because in that one play, that player might make a mistake that allows the other team to score.
Solving the issue of fans throwing objects onto the field
Now to the spectators. I am all for fans voicing their displeasure over bad calls. But we cannot allow actions that put the safety of players at risk.
The SEC responded by issuing Tennessee a $250,000 fine and mandating the school implement policies to try to prevent these actions in the future. UT police reportedly arrested 18 fans, and school officials said all the right things. But are a fine and some harsh words really going to stop fans from throwing trash on the field again? Not at all.
Ban fans in the stands for the next home game.
My solution is much more drastic. If fans throw objects on the field, that school would not be allowed to have fans in attendance for the next home game. The school could lose millions from tickets, concessions, and alcohol. The team could suffer a loss without the home field advantage.
The schools would have a huge incentive to stop it ahead of time. They could send letters to students and season ticket holders that if they’re caught on video throwing an object, they would lose their season tickets and never be allowed to buy a ticket or attend a game again. The first time such a penalty is ever instituted, the message would be sent loud and clear to every fan base in America, and this behavior would stop.
The NCAA should focus on athlete safety again.
I don’t expect the conferences to ever adopt such proposals. The NCAA should step in, though. Many people might not realize it, but the organization was created solely for the health and safety of the athletes. In the 1905 season alone, 13 players died during football games. President Theodore Roosevelt brought football leaders together to reform the sport. The NCAA was founded a year later. Maybe it’s time the NCAA focuses on athlete safety again.
People within college football won’t like these ideas, but they would quickly eliminate these bad behaviors.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the October 21, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.