To steal a line from Daniel Tosh: I'm a man, I'm not much of one, but I'm a man. As a man, I like my sports with a touch of violence. There's something about watching athletes turning other athletes into a pile of mush that makes me tingle on the inside. There isn't bloodthirstiness in my desire to watch a big pop -- I am civilized, after all, and dirty play akin to gladiatorship makes me wonder if people are still astounded by the construction of an aqueduct -- but controlled brutish intensity does have its charms. The inherent issue in this for lacrosse purposes, of course, is toeing that line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. How can referees police violence without disarming the game of one of its alluring features?
Concussions and other physical, mental, and emotional consequences of engaging in a violent sport are real concerns in college lacrosse; the toll of violence is real, and the effects of taking nasty beatings as 20-somethings can create serious issues down the road for many of these athletes. People much smarter than me are working on important research to try and curtail these residual consequences of lacrosse's cruelness; the medical and equipment communities are vital actors in trying to address such concerns in a game where the athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than they have ever been before. It's difficult to say whether enough is being done right now to assure the highest level of safety for college lacrosse players, but I feel fairly confident in writing this: This isn't a secondary issue for anyone anymore; things are happening to try and keep pace with the knowns that are out there.
Which makes this tweet from Mark Dixon (ESPN talking head/Inside Lacrosse contributor/referee) especially heartening:
Don't think player safety serious? Refs who do not call high hits in '13 will be penalized via no NCAA playoff games.— Mark Dixon (@DixonLacrosse) December 27, 2012
This obviously gives more responsibility to officials that already have a lot on their plate, but it does signal another important shift in how people are trying to address potential medical issues stemming from playing a violent sport (especially concussions): It's an agenda item, and allowing the unnecessary impetuses that create serious safety issues is not something that will go unpunished (both at the policing and primary actor levels). This affirms the desire to control unacceptable play -- head-hunting is just pointless, a masturbatory exercise in meathead theory -- while still allowing the game to keep its flashes of permitted violence.
That aside, though, I'm not completely in love with where the greatest onus of punishment appears to fall for high hits -- on the referees, who will lose an opportunity to do their job when lacrosse's biggest moment comes to the nation's attention. If the NCAA wanted to really outlaw unnecessary pops to the skull from the game (which wouldn't anger me for one second), the rules committee needs to address the punishment concomitant with slamming someone's melon: Increase the penalty for targeting the head or neck from a one, two, or three minute nonreleasable foul to a mandatory five minute nonreleasable foul with discretion to increase the time up to 10 minutes and create a stronger construct around expulsions for targeting the head or neck (expulsion, under the current rulebook, only turns on "excessive violation"). There's a decent amount of disincentive to striking the head right now, but if you want to eradicate it from the game in totem -- and the NCAA is implicitly trying to do this by excluding referees that don't address the issue this spring -- you need a substantially strong deterrent.
Putting further responsibility on coaches to teach more controlled play and players to act in an acceptable fashion gets the NCAA closer to that perceived goal.