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NCAA strengthens spearing penalty rule

NEW YORK -- The NCAA has a warning for college football players: See what you hit or expect to get flagged.

The NCAA changed its spearing rule in the offseason to remove any reference to intent. The old rule penalized players who intentionally led with their helmets, forcing officials to judge whether a dangerous, high-speed hit was deliberate. Not anymore.

Georgia athletic trainer Ron Courson, who headed a task force that studied the rule and initiated the change, said he hopes that more penalties will lead to a safer game.

"If we're in a game where we have five holding penalties, I know it's going to be addressed on Monday," Courson said. "If we have five of these penalties, it's going to get addressed."

Courson felt compelled to do something about the spearing rule after he was an eyewitness to one of the scariest hits of the 2004 season.

"Football is a violent game even if played appropriately, but if you do something inappropriate it can change your life," he said.

Georgia's Reggie Brown made a catch over the middle against Auburn and before he could turn up field, Junior Rosegreen flattened the receiver with a helmet-to-helmet hit that sent chills through Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Courson attended to Brown as the player lay motionless on the
field.

Brown was lucky: He only ended up with a concussion. Rosegreen
was even luckier. The way he led with his head left him vulnerable
to a spine injury.

The hit got Courson thinking about how rarely he's seen spearing
called in college football. The problem, he found, was in the
wording of the rule.

"The rule said 'He must intentionally use his helmet to spear,'
and we felt like it's hard to find an official to realize whether
or not the players intentionally used it or whether he was just
making a hit," Southeastern Conference coordinator of officials
Bobby Gaston said. "So that will be a rule and a point of
emphasis, not only in our conference, but nationally."

The NCAA is providing each school with posters showing what an
illegal hit looks like. Courson also put together a video with
examples of dangerous hits along with a presentation for athletic
trainers to show their players and coaches.

Florida safety Jarvis Herring said the "See What You Hit" sign
is in the Gators' locker room.

"The way we practice, we're taught to keep our head up anyway,
so it's not a big change," he said. "But we're aware of the new
rules. We just don't know how it's going play out in games.
Hopefully, it doesn't change much."

Spearing generally brings to mind a tackler lowering his head
and planting his helmet into another player's body.

While it may seem that the player on the receiving end of such
hits is most vulnerable, the player delivering the blow is in far
greater danger, Courson said.

"Our team doctors came and talked to our team about spearing
and said how the intent of the rule is really to protect the guy
who is spearing," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said.

The difference between a safe hit and a potentially fatal one is
mere inches.

"When you bend that head forward your spine becomes perfectly
straight and it can't absorb shock," Courson said. "My head stops
and my body is still going. It's called axial loading."

Two of the most tragic and well-known examples of what can
happen when a tackler drops his head are the cases of Chucky
Mullins and Curtis Williams. Mullins was a defensive back for
Mississippi who was left paralyzed after a hit he delivered in a
game against Vanderbilt in 1989. He died 18 months later.

Williams was playing defensive back for Washington when he was
paralyzed trying to make a tackle against Stanford in 2000. Like
Mullins, Williams died 18 months later.

"Unless you've been around somebody that's had one of those
serious neck injuries, you just don't know how devastating it can
be," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Last season, a helmet-to-helmet hit left Tennessee Tech receiver
Drew Hixon with a serious head injury. Hixon is returning to
school, but not the football team, this fall.

"This isn't an epidemic, but we do see a couple a year where
you say, 'That was a dangerous hit,"' NCAA associated director Ty
Halpin said.

Courson hopes the media will be more discerning about what hits
they glorify on television. Rosegreen's hit on Brown was all over
the highlight shows.

"If the media doesn't realize what's an illegal hit, kids are
going to see it and say 'I want to be on the highlights,' and the
media is teaching bad habits," he said.