Everybody talks about it, but nobody does jack shit about it.
Among high-ranking college football leaders, there is movement afoot to at least consider an adjustment to the targeting foul’s most harsh individual punishment—the ejection. In fact, the NCAA’s own coordinator of officials, Steve Shaw, and a handful of conference commissioners as well as athletic administrators and coaches, expect the rule to be examined this offseason. By the time the 2022 season kicks off, the hope is that the policy looks different.
There is, however, a problem. At this point, a proposal does not exist to modify the rule that has universal agreement among the sport’s various bodies.
“I have not seen a sophisticated plan and structure,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says. “I will be the first to say I’m open to alternative approaches, but they have to be grounded in eliminating these hits. The ejection and suspension from the next half of a game is a fairly blunt instrument, but it makes the point to change behavior.”
That point is significant, at least in the sense that the NCAA knew it had to come up with something to blunt the threat of litigation over serious football injuries. And it appears to have been successful in changing behavior.
Through the first three weeks of the 2021 season, officials called targeting 105 times. However, 45 of those were overturned on replay. Sixty targeting fouls were enforced in 243 games for a rate of 0.25, or one targeting call every four games. That is in line with last year’s data (0.27), which featured the highest targeting rate since at least 2016, when there was a targeting foul enforced in about every six games (0.17).
By regularity rate among all fouls, targeting ranks about 15th, or in the top one-third percentile, says Shaw, well behind leaders like false start (2.5 a game) and offensive holding (2.4).
… Last year only nine players committed multiple targeting fouls during the season: seven committed two and two players were flagged three times. Those who commit a third targeting foul in a single season are suspended one game. “That’s an indicator, the small numbers, that the rule is working,” Shaw says.
The problem with targeting isn’t calling it. It’s punishing the penalized player, and hence the team, with a half-game suspension that has folks up in arms.
“It’s an unbelievably costly penalty to young people. Every game, I’m heartbroken for those kids,” says Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “It’s time for us to try something different.”
Oh, puh-leeze, Todd. Dry those doing it for the kids crocodile tears before you embarrass yourself any further.
Here’s the problem. If you try something different that lessens the impact of the penalty, you run the risk that behavior doesn’t change. And splitting the baby, which some have proposed, adds its own set of issues.
It’s why Berry and the coaches’ association believe targeting should be a two-part penalty. His proposal would create a Targeting 1, which would result in only a 15-yard penalty. Targeting 2, a more malicious hit with intent to strike an opponent’s head, would carry a 15-yard penalty plus the standard ejection.
Several athletic administrators who serve on various NCAA governance committees agree as well—the two-part penalty is the way to go. “There is a significant amount of support for it,” Berry says.
But not everyone is on board.
A two-part foul injects extra subjectivity into the rule, making an official’s job more difficult. They’d spend more time dabbling in the gray area, attempting to determine whether a player had malicious motives.
“I don’t know how you determine intent,” says MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who supports an examination of the rule. “The foul has nothing to do with intent.”
Nothing says college football administration like adding a complexity to the game that lets people complain even more about officiating. That’s why I wouldn’t bet against this happening.