The Philadelphia Flyers squelched the Russian Central Army hockey team with a combination of highly sophisticated defense, opportunistic offense and sheer physical intimidation. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in much the same way. Ignorant admirers of these championship teams tend to think of their force and violence as the only things to emulate, not their sometimes exquisite skills.
This reverence for plain brute strength has become widespread, and not just in football and hockey. Grace and coordination, the hallmarks of the superior athlete, are too often subordinated.
It is therefore satisfying to report that an effort to reverse this trend, at least in college football, appeared last week when the NCAA's football rules committee adopted stricter rules against "spearing" an opponent with the helmet and more stringent penalties against roughing the passer. Theoretically, a defensive player cannot charge into a passer after he is out of the play, but the question of when he is out of the play is up to the officials to determine. Contact after the ball is thrown is condoned so long as it is a continuation of a legitimate effort to get to the passer, but too often the defense takes liberties with that license and gets away with it. On TV, for instance, you will see a quarterback face the rush of defensive linemen and throw the ball before they quite reach him. The cameras switch downfield to the intended receiver and defensive backs racing for the pass. And then, so many times, the cameras return for a shot of the quarterback struggling to his feet as the announcer chortles, "Boy, did Choptank unload on Flipper that time!"
The Choptanks of football are seldom penalized for this and (before the new rule) almost never if the pass is completed, because the completed pass is usually worth more in yardage than the penalty from the line of scrimmage. Next season, however, the 15-yard penalty for taking the passer apart will be measured from the point the play reaches. On a touchdown the penalty will be imposed on the subsequent kickoff.
It isn't total protection for the passer, but it does call attention to the problem and may serve to deter uninhibited aggression by the defense. It will also remind officials to keep a closer eye on the situation.
In any case, score one for the good guys.
Basketball, too, was told last week to knock off its tendency to resort to the purely physical. John P. Nucatola, the NBA's supervisor of officials, sent a memo to his referees, with copies to coaches and general managers, telling them to crack down on hand-checking. Hand-checking is not in the same class with walking up and down on a quarterback's chest, but it does introduce deliberate physical control of an opponent to a sport that technically does not permit such action. NBA rules do allow some hand contact between defensive and offensive player, but a foul is called if an official feels the defender is actually restraining his opponent.
Obviously, there is a fine line between touching and restraining, and Nucatola's memo came down strongly on the side of strict interpretation. "Hand-checking must be stopped," the memo read. "It leads to pushing, pushing leads to shoving, shoving leads to elbowing or more violent retaliation. Stop it and stop it now. I don't care if you have to call 100 fouls in a game. If they are there, call them. We must prevent any action which may lead to a rough game...."