ONE WEEK INTO the season and college football already has its first controversy. Believe it or not, this one has nothing to do with the BCS.
This one has to do with helmets, or lack thereof.
Brain buckets keep popping off the heads of college players at an alarming rate. This season, though, officials are doing something about those who lose their lids. A new safety rule calls for a player who loses his helmet to go to the penalty box, aka sideline, for the next play.
Fair enough. Sounds like a well-intended rule that will further prevent players from sustaining unnecessary injuries. One or two plays on the sideline might be enough to convince a player to don a tight-fitting helmet and buckle it properly on every single play.
Not according to sports talk radio and Internet message boards. Fans in those arenas already have demonized the rule, pointing to just how unfair it is to a player whose helmet is dislodged from his body. My, oh my, they say, the loss of one play could be crucial to a team’s success in any given game.
Enough. Let the rule play out. Let the instances of “helmetlessness” (new word for the college football’s vernacular, right next to “trickeration”) slowly decrease over the season before whining about the unfairness of it all.
Let’s go back to how this all came about.
As long as helmets have been a mandatory piece of equipment — 1939 through 2009 — players have absorbed hits of all kind without losing their helmets. Then, over the past two seasons, helmets began popping off heads in college football like PEZ tablets flipping out of the dispenser.
You began to wonder if a sneeze would suddenly dislodge a player’s helmet. The NCAA tracked the numbers and found that during the 2011 season there were more than two cases of helmets being dislodged per game.
We know this had nothing to do with a manufacturer’s error. In fact, helmet technology continues to advance to the point where manufacturers believe if a helmet is worn properly it should rarely — if ever — get dislodged from a player’s head.
There certainly is no evidence to back my claim, but my guess is that losing one’s helmet became the cool thing to do in college football, like no longer wearing knee pads or hip pads. The thinking went like this: Your helmet falls off and a stadium full of fans and TV audience gets to see your pretty face.
So, players began over the past couple of seasons to wear their helmets looser on their heads, and failed to always properly secure all four chinstrap snaps now attached to helmets.
During the offseason, NCAA coaches and a rules committee decided to do something about what had become a safety issue. Players were increasing the risk of a head injury by continuing to participate in a play after their helmet popped off.
The NCAA passed a safety rule that now states if a player loses his helmet, it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game for one play.
“Playing time is the most precious commodity to players,” said Steve Shaw, the SEC supervisor of officials when discussing the new rule at SEC Media Days. “So, we think that will give them incentive to get these buckled up and fitted properly.”
An exception was made to the rule allowing the player to remain in the game if the loss of a helmet was the result of a foul by the opponent. In South Carolina’s win against Vanderbilt a week ago, tight end Justice Cunningham lost his helmet on a personal foul hit but remained in the game.
The SEC did not keep count of how many players lost helmets in games involving its members during the first week, but the ACC office counted 17 players who lost their helmets in 10 league games.
Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington was sidelined for one crucial third-down play in the Yellow Jackets’ loss at Virginia Tech. Also, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd lost his helmet three times against Auburn. He was replaced twice by backup Cole Stoudt and was not sidelined the other time because Clemson did not run another play on offense.
“We talked about that as a staff this weekend,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re going to start trying to keep our guys warm just to have a guy ready. Most of the time, when the quarterback goes out, you can kind of plan for it ahead of time. It’s definitely a challenge at that position.”
Having a backup ready is fine, but where Swinney — and all other coaches — could head off the issue is by insisting that his players wear properly fitted helmets and snap their chinstraps properly.
If so, by season’s end, we will not remember that helmets were even an issue this season.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)