If Alabama goes on to defeat Notre Dame in the BCS championship game, there’s a pretty good chance that Quinton Dial will play only a minor role. So the problem with what happened Friday is not that the SEC just gave Alabama some unfair advantage by avoiding suspending one of its players — the problem is that it is sending mixed messages about how much it really cares about head injuries in football.
Or are hits to the head only important when it’s convenient?
After reviewing three plays from the SEC championship game between Georgia and Alabama, most notably Dial’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray, the conference declined to issue any suspensions, releasing a statement that said, “After review, all subsequent action will be handled internally by the two institutions and the conference office is satisfied with their actions.”
To translate: The SEC will allow Alabama coach Nick Saban to decide whether to suspend one of his defensive ends for the national championship game. Insert laugh track.
Now, before we jump into the obvious conspiracy theories — 1) Is SEC commissioner Mike Slive just doing whatever he can to ensure the conference wins its seventh straight BCS title; and 2) Will he be mowing Nick Saban’s lawn after the game? — let’s give equal time to the game’s infractions. Steve Shaw, the SEC’s director of officials, also reviewed a roughing-the-passer penalty on Georgia’s Alec Ogletree and deemed it not worthy of a suspension. He also looked at Sheldon Dawson’s attempted eye-gouge of Alabama’s Dee Millner following a kickoff return. Again, no suspension.
But Dial’s second-quarter helmet-to-helmet hit on Murray — see video below –easily was the most flagrant foul in the game, made worse by the fact that no flag was thrown. Murray had just had a pass intercepted by Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix at the Tide’s 18. During the return, Murray became a defensive player and Dial had the right to block him. But he came from out of view and collided with Murray helmet-to-helmet. CBS analyst Gary Danielson said, “Aaron Murray, you have to keep your head on a swivel, but that is just unnecessary roughness and a hit to the head …”
Shaw said Dial should’ve been called for a personal foul. “We should’ve flagged it,” he said, adding that an official who seemed to be looking at the play actually was focused on something else. (Note: Even if Dial was penalized, it would’ve affected field position but Alabama would’ve retained possession
because the hit came after the interception.)
The bigger issue here is why Dial is not being suspended. The SEC has suspended three other players for hits to the head, one last season for an Arkansas player’s hit on a punt returner; two this season for hits by Mississippi and South Carolina defensive backs against wide receivers. I spoke to Shaw for 30 minutes and he never would, or could, give specifics as to what prevented Dial’s hit from being considered worthy of a suspension.
He talked about the players in the other three situations being “defenseless.” He talked about the fact that Murray was technically a “defender.” He went on about how “our commissioner and really the SEC has been at the forefront of player safety.”
But when asked for specifics about what Dial would have had to do get suspended, Shaw spoke in grays.
“Do I condone hit? No. It’s something that should’ve been [penalized],” Shaw said. “But as for the acid test of the other one-game suspensions, overall it doesn’t rise to the same level.”
Here’s the problem: A conference either sets the bar on helmet hits and head injuries or it doesn’t. This looks fishy, especially given the proximity to BCS championship game.
When asked if this same decision would’ve been made in September, Shaw said, “My commissioner would say, ‘I don’t really go into hypotheticals.”
When told that left the door open to theories that Alabama and Dial were being given preferential treatment because of the title game, he again gave a vague response.
Finally when asked a third time if the impending BCS title game influenced the SEC’s decision to not suspend Dial, Shaw said, “No.”
But I’m less concerned about Quinton Dial than I am the seriousness of head injuries in football. With the blur of concussion-related litigation in the NFL and the suicides of several former players being tied to depression, dementia and other forms of brain damage resulting from head injuries, this is no time for inconsistent rulings from conference officials. There is too much at stake.
Yes, even more than a BCS title.
By Jeff Schultz
Here’s one YouTube view of Dial’s hit on Murray