Ejections: Time for NFL officials to do their part to curb on-field mayhem

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - For all the chatter about how to handle flagrant acts of violence that taint the NFL game and endanger its participants, let’s not forget one basic piece of the solution.

Sure, the league office can issue fines and suspensions. It will even consider a version of the NCAA's “targeting” rule to address egregious violations.

But this is on the refs, too. They've been much too hesitant to eject players like Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, who should have been sent to the showers Sunday in Buffalo after he clearly crossed the line and went into thug mode.

Sure, some of these blows come in the midst of “football acts.” But other stuff, like Gronkowski’s bashing of defenseless Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, needs to be dealt with by the zebras charged with maintaining control of the games.

“We don’t want to be in the business of ejecting players,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations – and a former Pro Bowl defensive back — said during a conference call Wednesday.

Incredulously, Vincent went on to explain that part of the league's philosophy is that there are "only 17 weeks” and that “we really emphasize, ‘Let the players play.' "

That’s nonsense. Just like his explanation that “the act” and not “the result” of Gronkowski’s body slam on White, who never returned to a game that Gronkowski kept playing in and is still in concussion protocol after getting clubbed in the back of the helmet — goon-style, as he lay prone on the turf — was the basis of the tight end's measly one-game suspension.

You can’t have it both ways, NFL, when touting all the rules changes passed in the name of safety.

The on-field officials should be in the business of maintaining order, not adhering to a mentality that the league office will handle it during the week. I mean, their authority is written into the rule book, just as it is for NBA referees and MLB umpires.

I’m disappointed that Gene Steratore, respected in league circles as one of its best referees, didn’t drop the hammer on Gronk, who deserved an ejection and suspension. As it stands, it appears White will miss more snaps than Gronkowski. Not fair.

What does it take? Does someone need to be killed on the field? If players can be disqualified for pushing refs and fighting, then why not for the Gronkowski episode?

“That should have been automatic,” Mike Pereira, the Fox rules analyst who previously headed the NFL’s officiating department, told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s not even a football play. Somebody’s got to step up in a case like that. And you can confirm it with the replay in New York.”

Pereira understands officials' dilemma when it comes to ejections but also contends there are some no-brainer circumstances warranting immediate action.

"You don’t need to wait,” he added. “You need to send a message. It needs to happen on game day. It has a bigger impact.”

With just 46 active players on a game day roster, the instant hit to a depth chart — especially if a targeting rule that mandates ejections is implemented — would sure get the attention of coaches, who can plan around suspensions. Last year’s big rule change (ejecting players for multiple personal fouls) has seemingly done little to curb unnecessary mayhem.

Pereira contends it’s time to take another step even as stiffer fines and suspensions seem to have fallen short of removing the egregious head shots.

“Players may be more apt to change their ways if they feel there’s an automatic ejection,” he said.

He’s seen techniques evolve because of the rule change on the college level.

And, upon further review, the league needs to tighten it up more to discourage players from taking cheap shots while encouraging a culture where refs won’t hesitate to toss players for a Gronk-like assault.

“You have to have a safety net to get the calls right,” Pereira added. “And the NFL has that with replay.” 

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