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The really simple way to fix college football’s targeting rule

Players should not be ejected for clearly accidental violations.

Devin White’s targeting foul vs. Mississippi State in 2018. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

College football’s targeting rule has good intentions, but it is a mess due to its disregard for intent. If we want rules to change behavior and create a safer game, the rules need to be seen as fair and applied justly.

Let’s first take a look at the two parts of the rule we’re dealing with.

No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting. When in question, it is a foul.

There’s a lot more to the targeting rule than just this, but this is the main part that requires an edit: officials should be asked to consider whether a player meant to hit an opponent up high or not.

Here’s the other part:

For fouls in the first half: Disqualification for the remainder of the game. For fouls in the second half: Disqualification for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next game. [...]

If a player receives a third Targeting foul within the same season, disqualification for the remainder of the game and that player will receive an automatic one-game suspension in his team’s next scheduled game.

A player is automatically ejected for any targeting violation, no matter the severity or intent, and the penalty increases over time.

The way the rule is written and applied is overly broad. It does not consider intent as a mitigating factor.

And the lack of flexibility in applying the rule leads to unfair penalties and ejections, which, if called in the second half, lead to a suspension for the first half of the next game.

I am all for player safety. And for making rules that can modify behavior. But you modify behavior by modifying intent. Punishing happenstance does not result in behavioral changes.

So I propose that college football adopts the college basketball model of a flagrant 1 and a flagrant 2 foul.

The main organization for FBS and other college coaches, the American Football Coaches Association, also likes something along this line:

This has also been proposed by AAC officiating coordinator Terry McCauley.

There would be Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 targeting penalties. A Flagrant 1 penalty, as determined by replay, would be for a less egregious and perhaps unintentional high hit. The penalty would be 15 yards and the player would remain in the game unless it’s his second targeting infraction, which would result in an ejection. In other words, Flagrant 1 would give a player the benefit of the doubt. Flagrant 2 would be the current penalty of automatic ejection but only for clear targeting plays.

‘We have enough experience now to know the difference,’ McAulay said. ‘I think if we got in a room with a lot of knowledgeable people, we’d be pretty much on the same page on whether it’s a Flagrant 1 or a 2 on a lot of these plays. This is anecdotal, but I think most of the targeting fouls these days appear to be those in that gray area. We’re seeing less launching. We don’t want to put people out unless we’re sure they committed an actual targeting foul as intended.’

Here is McCauley commenting on two notable penalties from October 2018, including an egregious call against LSU’s Devin White. In the second embed here (this is kind of a mess, because of Twitter’s setup), you can also see the play for which White was ejected, compared against a different SEC play.

It’s time to revisit this proposal.

And there are a few clear instances in which a targeting foul should not merit ejection.

Mitigating circumstance 1: The player clearly pulls up.

This would apply in the case of the White penalty, seen above. If a player realizes he might be about to commit a targeting violation and tries to avoid it, he should not be ejected.

The rationale is simple. We want to punish bad behavior and bad intentions. If a player makes a real effort to avoid laying an illegal hit on another player and instead delivers a less-serious blow, he shouldn’t be ejected.

White clearly pulled up. White was trying to get to the QB and knock the pass down. Instead of finishing through the QB once the QB released the ball, he delivered a much lighter blow than he could have.

Players making a decision to not finish off dangerous hits makes the game safer. As the rule is currently written, White might as well just have laid out the QB.

Meanwhile, plays like the following would still be targeting and not redeemed by review. These are the plays we’re trying to get rid of:

Mitigating circumstance 2: The player’s initial tackling path was clearly aimed not at the head or neck area, but the player receiving the hit lowered into him.

This is something we see every week.

We encourage players to not target the head or neck area. They aim to tackle in the waist or rib cage area. But then the ball carrier or player receiving the blow lowers into the hitter, bringing his head into the strike zone.

In this example, the BYU player was not leading with his helmet, looked to be targeting the rib cage, and only ended up with an ejection because the receiver quickly ducked into the hit:

In this instance, the hitter had no intent to commit a targeting foul. A penalty only occurred because the circumstance changed in a split second.

This exception should not apply to situations in which the location of the head or neck area should be expected to change due to the laws of physics, such as a player who leaps to make a catch must return to earth due to gravity. Common sense should apply.

Ejections should be for bad conduct, not incidental contact. Basketball has this right. Football does not.

Let’s fix it. And in doing so, it could make the game even safer by helping to truly change behavior, allowing coaches to actually teach the rule and set clearer standards.