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The NCAA’s targeting rule will never be perfect, but it’s worth understanding

Let’s actually read the rule and try to bust a few common myths.

This was not a helmet-to-helmet hit. Per the rulebook, it was fairly called targeting.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Football must have something like the targeting rule. But in a sport this complicated and fast-moving, no rule will never be perfectly applied.

Fans and media are often frustrated with the current NCAA rule’s inconsistent usage, and I’m not going to tell you it’s flawless in its language, application, or consequences. I can remember some inexplicable targeting fouls, as I’m sure you can.

But even though we’ll never agree with every instance of the penalty, we can at least make sure we’re arguing about the same thing.

We can look at the rule itself, which has inspired a lot of myths. Misconception #1: Targeting just means “helmet-to-helmet hits.”

Too often, a targeting call that results in the standard 15-yard penalty and automatic ejection leads people to point out a lack of helmet contact, but the rules do not specifically require that (if you think that should be the rule, that’s a different conversation). A helmet-to-helmet hit can be a targeting foul, but all targeting fouls are not necessarily helmet-to-helmet hits.

From the NCAA rulebook (emphasis added throughout):

No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul.

This specifies a hit with the top of your helmet, but not necessarily a hit to your opponent’s helmet. And officials are essentially told to flag everything that might be targeting, since the replay booth will sort it out.

A player could launch crown-first into a player’s hand, and that could be targeting. More commonly, you’ll see targeting calls after crown-to-ribcage hits.

This in 2016 was correctly called targeting, even though the defender didn’t go anywhere near the quarterback’s head. It was a crown hit on a defenseless passer.

ESPN

Misconception #2: The targeting rule means nobody can hit anybody in the head.

If a player hits an opponent in the head but doesn’t lead with the crown, the hit might not be targeting, unless the opponent could be considered “defenseless.”

The next item in the rulebook, including the aforementioned "Note 1," which explains many additional situations in which all kinds of hits are considered targeting:

No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent (See Note 2 below) with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6). (A.R. 9-1-4-I-VI)

Note 1: "Targeting" means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball. Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:

  • Launch—a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area
  • A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground
  • Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area
  • Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet

This describes targeting as including actions that don’t involve helmet contact at all.

Misconception #3: Targeting only covers hits on players who have the ball.

Note 2: Defenseless player (Rule 2-27-14):

  • A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
  • A receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backward pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  • A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.
  • A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  • A player on the ground.
  • A player obviously out of the play.
  • A player who receives a blind-side block.
  • A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
  • A quarterback any time after a change of possession.
  • A ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first

Here’s a targeting call on a launching hit to the head/neck area of a player who didn’t have the ball:

CBS

For 2019, the NCAA explicitly banned “forcible” blind-side blocks and added a targeting designation to blind-side blocks that are also targeting.

There are gray areas. Officials don’t usually consider running backs defenseless if they’re just running between the tackles, for instance. Linemen butt heads almost every play, and that’s consistently allowed. (Whether this is an acceptable thing for player safety is another discussion.)

Note 2: Defenseless player (Rule 2-27-14):

  • A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
  • A receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backward pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  • A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.
  • A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
  • A player on the ground.
  • A player obviously out of the play.
  • A player who receives a blind-side block.
  • A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
  • A quarterback any time after a change of possession.
  • A ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first

Also, a new piece of language added in 2018: “When in question, a player is defenseless.” Again, officials are told to throw the flag whenever there’s a question.

Misconception #4: Targeting only applies if the QB’s giving himself up.

This one comes up a lot when quarterbacks take off running. “He’s still a runner,” someone might say, or “he hasn’t slid to give himself up.” Those are things that would make him “defenseless,” but he can still be targeted via the crown of the helmet rule.

Things that don’t factor into the decision to call a targeting foul, according to the rulebook, include:

  • How superhumanly tough the television viewer thinks football players should aspire to be,
  • How much the columnist in the pressbox enjoyed football’s previously higher levels of violence,
  • The TV commentator's worries that this is all becoming flag football,
  • Or even the coach's valid and reasonable conclusion that avoiding a targeting hit would require a player to approach a play awkwardly. Again, it’s an imperfect rule applied to a chaotic game that moves at max speed.

Clearly, the targeting rule can be hard to apply.

Football changes. Football will survive, or it won’t. That goes for all of us.

All of this is an attempt to legislate excessive violence out of a sport founded on it 150 years ago, but if this is the game we’re going to watch, we might as well know what the rules say.

And if this is the game we’re going to hope remains with us three decades from now, we’re going to have to let it evolve. “When in question, it is a foul,” the rule says. We have to err on the side of player safety, and if that requires rules even more game-changing than targeting (it surely does), then so be it. At the same time, we should lobby for the rule to become both safer and fairer.