Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn looks on as trainers attend to linebacker Darrell Williams while Alabama A&M head coach James Spady reacts to a targeting call during their Nov. 19, 2016, NCAA college football game in Auburn, Ala. (Butch Dill/AP, File)
Originally published Sunday, August 13, 2017 at 05:55a.m.
In these times when so much divides Americans, the targeting penalty brings college football fans together. Just about all of them hate it.
The targeting foul turns 10 this season, though the real rage against it did not start until 2013 when player ejections became part of the penalty. The rule remains unchanged despite an offseason discussion of whether to eliminate ejections for certain infractions, and the effort to protect players is spreading: The NFL competition committee this year approved automatic ejections for egregious hits to the head.
Targeting can be a difficult call for officials, a split-second evaluation of a high-speed collision. The 15-yard penalty that comes with it can drastically swing a game and losing a player to an ejection is a dramatic step. It does remain a relatively rare call. Even last year, when targeting fouls reached new highs in total (144) and per game (0.17), the number still amounted to only one every 5.83 FBS games played.
For many, this seems a small price to pay to attempt to make the game safer — especially as studies on the toll football takes on the body and brain continue to yield worrisome results.
While it is impossible to quantify whether ejecting players has led to a decrease in the rate and number of head and neck injuries, those who play a part in shaping college football’s rules say they can see a difference in the way the game is being played.
“We can see clear changes in behavior of the players,” said Rogers Redding, the national coordinator of officials. “By that I mean, we see less of players just launching themselves like a missile at a guy’s head. We still see it sometimes, but you also see a lot of times when they’re coming in lower. They’re getting their heads out of the way. They’re making contact at the chest or in the side, not going high.”
Another telltale sign: Dangerous hits that in the past would produce high-fives and chest-bumps by players now are no longer cause for celebration.
“Now what you’ll see is, you’ll see a player make a hit like this and one of the early reactions is he’ll grab his helmet and say, ‘Oh, my goodness what have I done,’” Redding said.
Targeting is not just about trying to curtail concussions. What has been lost in the constant focus on concussions in football is that the targeting rule was put in place as a response to research that showed the number of catastrophic head, neck, spine and brain injuries at all levels of football spiked in the 2000s.
Ron Courson, the head athletic trainer and director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia, was part of the push to add the targeting personal foul back in 2008. He said studies have shown that when catastrophic injuries happen in football it is usually the player doing the striking with the crown of the helmet who sustains the injury.
The targeting rule is as much about protecting the player delivering the hit as the one taking it, Courson said. He said tackling now is more about the “big hits” than trying to “wrap up” a player, and there are other factors, too.
“They are faster and they are stronger and that leads to more violent collisions,” Courson said.