Did South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger Deserve to Get Suspended?

As I am sure you've heard by now, D.J. Swearinger has been suspended by the SEC for his hit against a wide receiver in the UAB game. Mike Slive announced the suspension on Monday. In pertinent part the release stated:

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive has announced that South Carolina senior defensive back D.J. Swearinger has been suspended for the Sept. 22 Missouri at South Carolina football game. This action is the result of a flagrant and dangerous act which occurred at the 5:46 mark in the third quarter.

Did that hit deserve a suspension? Not all Gamecocks agree. Here is the video:

During the game Swearinger was flagged for violating Rule 9, Section 1, Article 4 ("Rule 9-1-4"). Rule 9-1-4 reads in its entirety as follows:

No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.

That's not quite a simple as helmet to helmet. Let's unpack that a little bit. In order for it to be a foul, the player must 1) target the head or neck area, 2) initiate contact to the head or neck area, 3) the contact must be initiated with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder and 4) the opponent must be defenseless. That's almost too much to ask referee to judge in a split second, so there is the added sentence that if there is a question, it is a foul.

Much, much more after the brreak.

So, if Swearinger didn't do any one of the things above, it shouldn't have been a foul and certainly not a suspension. Did Swearinger target the head or neck area? How do we have any way of knowing? He probably was targeting the ball or the center mass of the receiver. He could have been targeting the head or neck, but neither we nor the SEC office nor the official on the field has any way of knowing that. That part of the rule should probably be excised since it's just going to be assumed based on the other factors.

Was the receiver defenseless. Holding aside any argument about whether a college football player voluntarily participating in a D-1 game can be defenseless, the receiver was clearly and undoubtedly defenseless under the rules. But remember, that alone is not enough to warrant a penalty.

Did Swearinger initiate contact with his helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder? You would think, obviously yes, but it looks like the first part of Swearinger's body to contact the receiver was his arms and the receivers arms. If that's the case, according to the rule then there shouldn't have been a foul, but that's far from clear on the video.

#3 Did Swearinger initiate contact to the head or neck? I can't tell; it happened too fast. Even the replays I've seen aren't clear. The next contact is clearly the one the official and league office were concerned with. Did Swearinger's helmet or shoulder contact the receiver's head or neck area? The answer is undoubtedly yes, but the rule requires contact be initiated with the receiver's head or neck. That isn't clear at all. If secondary contact was to the head or neck area, then it is no foul. The key is 'initiate'.

It could have been that the head was hit first, but it could just as easily been that the shoulder into the chest hit first. Again it happened too fast. Because of that, and because of the admonition in the rule that "when in doubt, it is a foul", I don't think the back judge deserves any blame at all. From his point of view it might have been a foul under the rule. It certainly looked worse from behind, and he is constrained by the rule that says if you can't tell, call it.

The SEC office is under no such directive. They are required by Rule 9-6-2 to initiate a video review to determine if additional sanctions are warranted. The decision to implement those sanctions is at the discretion of the conference.

When the SEC, or any other conference, reviews one of these plays, what are they looking for to determine whether a suspension is warranted? It's not clear. Perhaps examples from earlier this season will provide some clarity. First, here is the Ole Miss game where an Ole Miss player was suspended by the SEC for the same infraction.

Next, take a look at the South Carolina - Vanderbilt game from opening night, and see a hit that was flagged but resulted in no suspension.

If you're like many football fans, you might have trouble differentiating one suspendable hit from a run of the mill penalty. Ole Miss fans certainly had difficulty with these two last week and wanted to know what the difference was. John Pennington of Mr. SEC was able to get some clarification from Charles Bloom the head of SEC PR. Mr. SEC was told:

In the UM hit, the defender has his head down prior to contact and makes contact with the crown of his helmet into the facemask of the receiver. In the VU hit, the defender has his head up prior to contact and while there was initial contact with the helmet, it was at the side of the helmet. The crown was not used by the defender.

Finding a similar explanation, Ron Higgins, of the Memphis Commercial Appeal spoke with SEC Supervisor of Officials Steve Shaw who stated:

"The Vanderbilt player hit the defenseless South Carolina player in a heads-up fashion, not lowered," Shaw explained. "And even though their helmets hit each other on the side, most of the force of blow is to the shoulder of the South Carolina receiver.

Well, isn't that all true about D.J. Swearinger's hit? Swearinger had his head up and made contact with the side of his helmet. He didn't use the crown of his helmet, even if you believe initial contact was with the receiver's head.

Last week the SEC office gave reasons why the hit against Justice Cunningham wasn't a suspendable hit, but apparently they weren't interested in applying the same logic to D.J. Swearinger's hit. By failing to do so, they have shown that they don't have objective standards by which to invoke suspensions and they leave players in limbo with their arbitrary enforcement. This isn't what the SEC wants to be known for.

Nonetheless, there is no appeals process, and Swearinger won't be playing this weekend. We'll take Coach Spurrier's lead and let this be the end of it. Today at his press conference the Head Ball Coach said, "He is suspended. We'll live with it. D.J. will be ready next week. ... We accept the penalty and will move on from here."

Get more great South Carolina sports analysis over at Leftover Hot Dog.


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