Don’t Blame NFL/Refs for Harrison Smith Ejection; This is What Players Wanted and Sued For

Photo: Eric Christian Smith - AP

On Sunday afternoon, Harrison Smith was ejected from the Minnesota Vikings vs Houston Texans game. The future HOF safety was flagged for launching at a defenseless receiver and making helmet-to-helmet contact with the crown of his cap. In college football, the penalty has a name, “Targeting“.

A lot of people around the internet and sportscasting world were up in arms. On KFAN radio with Paul Allen today, Pete Bercich (former Viking player and coach — now color analyst for Vikings radio calls on KFAN) threatened to leave the sport of football and stop watching altogether if Harrison Smith type ejections continue… (listen HERE — 45-minute mark).

Here is the hit in question.

Per Rules, Ejection Was Correct Call

Immediately after watching this play, I thought ejection. I knew the NFL had changed their rules around defenseless receivers, to allow for targeting-type ejections, similar to that of college football. If you’ve been watching a lot of college football over the last few years, then you likely thought the same. This is an ejection everytime in the NCAA.

You don’t have to agree with the rule. This kind of hit was the shit we lived for as football fans, for decades. I’ll get to that momentarily, if you you keep reading. By the letter of NFL law, however, this was the correct call and there are a few giveaways.

Smith launches with both feet, which is an automatic targeting call, at the college level. He is “targeting” the football, objectively trying to jar it loose, with his shoulder pads and helmet area, specifically THE CROWN OF HIS HELMET. Intent doesn’t matter. Obviously, we know Harrison Smith isn’t running around the football field “targeting” the helmets of defenseless receivers. That’s not what the rule is about.

I understand the consternation regarding this ejection and I don’t disagree with those who hate it… but the anger is directed at the wrong place. Here is the rule, as it reads. I’ve underlined everything that relates to the Harrison Smith hit. After you read it, I’ll explain why you should be pissed off at current and former NFL players (like Pete Bercich) for these player safety changes you hate so much, and not the league and their referees.


(b) Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:

  • (1) forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him;
  • (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with any part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body; or
  • (3) illegally launching into a defenseless opponent. It is an illegal launch if a player (i) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (ii) uses any part of his helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body. (This does not apply to contact against a runner, unless the runner is still considered to be a defenseless player, as defined in Article 9.)
  • (1) The provisions of (b) do not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional tackle or block on an opponent.
  • (2) A player who initiates contact against a defenseless opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball from an opponent. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a defenseless opponent, even if the opponent is an airborne player who is returning to the ground or whose body position is otherwise in motion, and irrespective of any acts by the defenseless opponent, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.

Penalty: For unnecessary roughness: Loss of 15 yards and an automatic first down. The player may be disqualified if the action is judged by the official(s) to be flagrant.

Hate the Players, Not the Game

In July 2011, 75 former NFL players sued the league for “allegedly concealing the dangers of concussions for 90 years“. In August of 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million in settlements for thousands of past players, because they didn’t disclose the long-term effects of head injuries to their employees. That money would eventually swell to $1 billion+ and the lawsuits keep coming. The original agreement only covered players who retired before 2014 and held an opt-out clause for those who wanted to pursue separate and individual action against the National Football League.

For the last handful of years, players have destroyed the NFL on social media and other outlets, for the way they’ve been treated. Both past and present players have thrown insults and lodged complaints against their employer, most of which would never be allowed by any other business. Many of those complaints have been directed toward player safety and the lack of empathy the league displays for those who are putting their futures on the line every game.

As Long as Tackle Football Exists I’m Happy

Honestly, I don’t care whether you want to make the game of football safer or if you want the old slobber-knocker football that you remember loving so much, at one time of your life. I just want your anger to be directed in the right place.

Get mad at these changes if you want to… but don’t get mad at the NFL. If your employees were suing you for billions of dollars and winning, you’d probably be making new rules to fix the problem causing lawsuits too.

Personally, I miss the big hits as much as anyone else but I’ll take less of those hits if it means keeping football. At one point in recent years, I was worried football was going down the toilet. Remember the pressure on the NFL when the Will Smith “Concussions” movie came out?

Less and less kids are going out for football and head injuries remain the NFL’s greatest enemy to sustained success. If the players agree to stop suing the league, I’m sure they’ll agree to bring the hits back. Until then, yell at the players whenever you see a player safety call you don’t like.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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