The art of faking injuries in college football

  • Covers the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of Auburn University.

THERE ARE almost always a few sideways glances and awkward moments when players are asked about it.

Even when they’ve left the college ranks, they aren’t comfortable saying anything unless granted anonymity. But once that’s a given, the floodgates start to open up. One player grins as if he’s been waiting all day to peel back the curtain on an inside joke.

How often do players fake injuries?

“In a game?” he said. “Oh, all the time. All the time.”

He paused for a moment.

“Have I ever faked one? Once.”

It was a few years back. He was playing Texas Tech, and the defense was in trouble.

“Pat Mahomes was the quarterback, and you know how that offense was. Our coach said if we looked to the sideline and somebody gives us the finger” — the gun signal — “one of us has to go down.”

He saw his cue and leapt into action.

“I just went, ‘Ah!’ like I had a cramp” — grabbing his upper hamstring — “and went down.”

The ref told him to stay down, so he did.

“I looked up, and all my teammates automatically knew. It was like, ‘Thank you.'”

He waited a bit before jogging off the field with a pretend limp. “You gotta sell it,” he said. Teammates would heckle his Razzie-worthy performance during film review the following week, albeit with a wink and a nod.

“I think it helped the team get our feet back under us.”

It might not be pretty, but he called faking injuries a “gray area” of the game. And of the defensive players we talked to, everyone agreed. Maybe some haven’t participated — or won’t admit to participating — in it themselves, but they certainly understand why it’s done.

Sometimes the signal comes from the sideline, they said. Other times, it’s players who take initiative.

Maybe it’s because the defense doesn’t have enough players on the field. Or maybe players just need to catch their breath or give coaches time to figure out the next play.

But whatever the case …

“If you don’t have or can’t waste a timeout, somebody needs to go down,” one player explained. “It’s not someone who is necessarily expendable, but someone who can go out for a play.”

Said another player: “If you are going to fake an injury, make it be good. Don’t get right back on the field. … You have to play it off.”

And another: “I don’t think it’s looked down upon because overall you’re sacrificing for your team because that person has to come off the field.”

While that attitude might be prevalent among defensive players, it’s not shared by all.

There are those within the game who believe the mandatory one-play exit for injured players isn’t enough to disincentivize those who would fake being hurt in order to slow down opposing offenses. They don’t look at it as a gray area at all. It’s black and white, and they’re willing to call it as they see it: outright cheating that must be stopped.

And they’re taking steps to do that right now, sending the message to coaches this offseason that either they put an end to it or live with the consequences.

COACHES, administrators and players gathered in late February at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis for a full week of meetings. To start things off on Monday, they received player health and safety reports. Then, on Tuesday, the competition committee convened.

It was at some point that afternoon that national coordinator of officials Steve Shaw showed a video to the committee’s 12 voting and three non-voting members.

The first clip featured a game from last season. At the top of the screen, three receivers are bunched in a trips formation, but only two players are in position to defend. Frazzled, coaches then mistakenly send a 12th man onto the field to make up the difference. But by the time they realize it and a defender starts running toward the sideline, it’s too late. The offense is already in position to snap the football, which would trigger a 5-yard penalty.

Instead, the middle linebacker suddenly drops to the turf in a blatant attempt to force an injury timeout. “He just falls like he’s been shot from the upper deck,” Shaw said.

To make matters worse, a cornerback on the near side of the field starts to do the same exact thing. Only he sees the middle linebacker at the last second, scrambles up, loses balance and nearly falls over before steadying himself.

Larry, Moe and Curly would have been jealous. Only Shaw wasn’t laughing.

The team in question, which Shaw refused to name, was able to escape the embarrassment of two players faking an injury at the same time. But other teams in the video couldn’t. Another clip showed a defender running to a teammate and forcibly pulling him down to the ground in order to stop the clock.

There was nothing subtle about it.

Every clip featured a situation in which the defense wasn’t ready or was unable slow the momentum of the offense.

“When you watch this video, it’s” — Shaw said, pausing for effect — “bad.”

The competition committee discussed and debated the topic. Then the rules committee picked up the conversation the following day, watching the same video.

At one point, one of the defenses shown to be faking an injury belonged to a head coach sitting on one of the committees. According to Shaw, the coach said he was embarrassed. He couldn’t believe “this actually happened under my watch.”

But it does.

In 2010, Cal coach Jeff Tedford said he was unaware that assistant Tosh Lupoi had instructed players to fake being hurt. And although Lupoi was outed and suspended one game by the university, it did little to curtail the behavior nationally. The frequency of players faking injuries seems to be only increasing as offenses become more adept at pushing the tempo.

Stanford coach David Shaw, who sits on both committees, said watching the video in Indianapolis “turned my stomach.”

“We’re drawing a line that says, ‘This is cheating. This is not what the game was meant for. We don’t want this to be part of our game.'”

MAKE NO mistake: There were instances of players faking injuries in the past, but the rise of spread and up-tempo offenses over the past decade put defenses in this bind. Suddenly, there were so many different personnel packages, so many different alignments and not nearly enough time between plays to account for them all.

It was inevitable then that defensive coaches would look to buy a few seconds of relief. And it’s no surprise they landed on injury timeouts as an answer.

A defensive-minded head coach at a Power 5 program, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said he thinks players faking injuries has become a bad look for the game.

“Not ‘I think’ — I know it’s not a good look for our sport,” he said, correcting himself. “But I also think that deception is also a huge part of our sport. There’s also a lot of rules in college football that are friendly to deception — for offensive guys.”

The fact that every rule is seemingly bent toward offense now, this coach argued, is wrong. And to be clear: He’s held his own with some of the best defenses in the sport the past five years.

“Is putting so many receivers on one side of the ball, going as fast as you can, that kind of trick and deception, is that a good look?” he said, his voice rising. “So there’s your argument: ‘OK, don’t lie on the ground and fake an injury. OK, well, don’t do this bulls—.’ It’s not football. That’s trick ’em. Are we trying to trick people or fundamentally trying to teach them how to play the game?”

Suddenly, he was on a roll.

“OK, all the trick ’em, d— ’em, bulls—, is that what we want it to look like? We want to win because we trick you?” he continued. “Or are we going to beat you because we’re physical, we’re tough, we outrun you, got great talent, make a great catch, whatever it is? The game is great. But let’s face it: A lot of this college football stuff in certain leagues is a joke. It’s a joke. We’re going to score because we trick you better than others. I personally don’t want to spend my time tricking people.

“Again, deception is deception. Setting things up and trick plays, that’s a fun part of the game, too. I’m talking about straight tempo, trick ’em, four guys on the side, end over, tackle eligible, all this stuff. All right, then let’s get rid of all that.”

Hearing a summation of this coach’s argument, Stanford’s Shaw agreed that the rules have indeed begun to favor offenses too much. “The pendulum has swung too far in that direction,” he said.

Don’t mistake Shaw’s understanding for sympathy, though. Pushing the boundaries of the rules is one thing. It’s a high-pressure game with million-dollar contracts on the line, after all.

But there’s competitive nature, Shaw said, and then there’s cheating.

“I don’t have sympathy for anyone who has to go outside the rules to win a football game,” he said. “You have to try to find a different way.”

TECHNICALLY there’s no penalty for faking an injury. But it is addressed early on in the NCAA football rulebook. The act is labeled “unethical” and “dishonest, unsportsmanlike and contrary to the spirit of the rules.”

“Such tactics cannot be tolerated among sportsmen of integrity,” the rulebook says.

That word — “integrity” — is one both Steve Shaw and David Shaw kept coming back to during interviews with ESPN. They talked about the longstanding tradition of fans applauding injured players as they leave the field, and they said it’s a shame to see it falling by the wayside. But they know why. They see the same poor acting jobs we all do.

During its meeting in February, the rules committee struggled with what members agreed was a bad look for the game. Steve Shaw said the debate was “robust” and lasted for “hours and hours.”

With so many tentacles to consider, committee members wondered, “What can we do?”

Two things became clear: First, officials would never be asked to determine the validity of an injury. Not only would it put them in an impossible position, it would run contrary to basic player safety guidelines. And, second, coaches would ultimately shoulder the responsibility since players take their cues from them.

“I’ll say this as directly as possible: This is on the coaches, this is not on the players,” David Shaw said. “This is on coaching integrity, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different. This is not just trying to win games, it has to do with integrity. It’s hard to legislate integrity.”

But not impossible. The answer, it turns out, is simple: tie it to playing time, since it’s the most valuable commodity to both players and coaches.

Take targeting, for example. It was seen as an existential threat to the game not long ago. Then came the penalty that caused an offending player to miss either the remainder of the game or the entire first half of the following game. Vicious hits continue to happen, of course, but not nearly as frequently as before the new rule went into effect.

But faking an injury isn’t a black-and-white proposition, as any deterrent would ultimately affect players with legitimate injuries as well. Jamming a finger or having the wind knocked out of you can be momentary, after all. And getting cramps from dehydration can look awfully suspicious since the pain strikes out of nowhere.

What’s more, the last thing the rules committee wanted to do was create the unintended consequence of players with legitimate injuries playing through pain because they feared a mandatory extended absence.

So what would be appropriate to deter bad actors? Two plays? Four? Ten? “Some people said a possession,” Steve Shaw said. “Some went as far as a quarter.”

Ultimately, the rules committee decided there was no magic bullet and tabled legislation. But instead of doing nothing, it opted for a direct warning to coaches: Either you deal with this now or we’ll have to do something.

“We’re going to work with all coaches — and maybe players — to where they see this video and recognize that we’re looking at this very closely,” Steve Shaw said, “and our expectation is that in the 2020 season feigning injuries as an issue in our game will go away, with clear expectations that if players and coaches don’t take care of it, the rules committee then will have to address it and deal with it in some kind of playing time respect. That’s really the only way we think we can get after it.”

YOU’LL HAVE to forgive Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy if he rolls his eyes a little bit at this. He hears the anonymous head coach’s rationale for why defenses fake injuries and immediately blows up the premise.

“The rules haven’t been changed,” he said, “it’s just that offensive coaches have started thinking outside the box.”

But, honestly, he’s grown tired of the argument. He first started seeing defenses lie down against his offenses around 2010 and now he estimates half the teams in the Big 12 do it. Nationally, he figures fake injuries occur maybe 100 times in a season.

He has taken video showing coaches signaling from the sideline for players to take a fall. He has spoken to the Big 12 about it. And nothing gets done.

He even feels he has a fair solution: If a player goes down with an injury, he should be out the remainder of the possession. And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, he’s even willing to extend the rule apply to offensive players as well, despite the fact that it’s almost exclusively a defensive phenomenon.

If his starting quarterback has to sit out a series, so be it.

If it’s a legitimate injury a player could come back from after one play, then that’s the cost of doing business.

“The small number of times that happens compared to the large number of times that players are faking injuries, it’s worth it,” he said. “Is it ever going to be perfect? No.”

It’s clear Gundy has thought this through. He even knows what defenses will do, sending in an expendable backup to fake an injury. But at least that would take a little extra work, he said.

“I’ve tried for years and years and years, but I’ve given up on it,” he said. “I just don’t push it anymore. It is what it is, we adapt and go on down the road.”

Fake injuries happened so frequently to fellow Big 12 member Texas Tech that the offensive line wore it as a badge of honor. According to Terrence Steele, who started every game during Mahomes’ senior season, the linemen would gleefully turn to one another and shout, “He’s tapping out! He’s tapping out!”

“We wear defenses out, so their go-to thing is to get a signal from the sideline and have a player go down,” Steele said, estimating it occurred two or three times per game. “When we’re rolling they do it a lot.”

The warning the rules committee is sending to coaches to cut it out is at least a step in the right direction, Gundy said, but he isn’t holding his breath. Coaches were told time and time again to stop teaching targeting-style tackling and he didn’t see them actually do it until a rule came along that forced their hands.

“Warning coaches isn’t going to do anything,” he said. “Until they say that if he’s hurt then he’s out for the remainder of the drive, then coaches are going to go into meetings and say, ‘We have to slow their offenses down. I know the rules committee says we need to try this, but the rules committee is not paying my paycheck.'”

It’s basic human nature. When the speed limit on the interstate is 70 mph, a lot of people feel comfortable going 76 because they know they’re not likely to get a ticket. And right now, Gundy said, “The referees have no leeway to stop what’s going on, so everyone is driving over the speed limit.”

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